February, 2014

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
  • The New Environmental Land Management Scheme: putting life back in the countryside?

    In the week when Meurig Raymond succeeded Peter Kendall as the President of the NFU (seehere),  Defra has announced (see here) more details about how farmers will be rewarded to protect the environment and recover farmland wildlife.  Details of the Environmental Land Management Scheme (NELMS) for England have emerged and I am pleased to say that we are pretty pleased with what is being proposed.

    Those of you that have been following the endless and painful saga of Common Agriculture Policy reform and implementation will remember that about £3 billion of the £15 billion that will be given to farmers in England over the next seven years will be used to support wildlife-friendly farming.  We wanted it to be more, but we lost that particular debate.   Earlier in the month, I wrote about how the £12 billion could be made to work much harder especially to prevent flooding (see here).  But we were also keen that the new scheme built on the experience of the past twenty years, that it was well-designed and that it focused on meeting government's biodiversity commitments (especially for sites, species and habitats).  

    The good news is that Defra says that "biodiversity should be the priority for the scheme and we [Defra] will seek to maximise opportunities to deliver biodiversity, water quality and flooding benefits together”.  

    Andy Hay (rpsb-images.com)

    Defra have also announced a shift away from the ‘spray and pray’ approach of Entry Level Stewardship (ELS), with a commitment to ‘directed option choice’. This means agreements should include the right mix of options for the priorities that they’re trying to address. So if a farm is in a farmland bird hotspot, the design of NELMS should ensure that it provides the ‘Big 3’ management prescriptions for farmland birds: a safe place for birds to nest, enough food to rear their chicks and enough food to survive the winter.   Based on our research and experience at places like Hope Farm, we have been calling for this for some time and this new approach could, whisper it quietly, help to reverse the declines in farmland bird. 

    The strength of the old Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) has also been recognised.   This site-specific package, supported by expert advice from Natural England and Forestry Commission will still be available.  I am also pleased to see attempts to incentivise collaboration between farmers encouraging them to bid together for funds (akin to the Nature Improvement Area competition).  Anything that encourages landscape-scale action is good news for wildlife.  More sympathetic management over a larger area (such as the Thorney Farmland Bird Friendly Zone involving 14 farmers and 3,782 ha - see here) is something that must be encouraged.

    It's not all perfect (the proposed universal capital grant scheme which will struggle to deliver environmental benefits) yet our first impressions are that this new scheme is good news for wildlife and for farmers.  The Defra team have done a good job.

    But uncertainties remain.

    How the pot will be divided up between the competing objectives?  Biodiversity is the ‘overall priority’, but Defra also expect the new scheme to realise ‘synergistic outcomes’.  What are they and do they exist in practice?  The announcement focused on biodiversity, water quality and flood risk management (FRM), but also notes that “nonetheless we have concluded that the new scheme should be broad in scope”, with soil management, historic environment, landscape, genetic conservation and educational access all remaining priorities. If you were to put this in a pie chart, the balance of spend available for new schemes might look like simple chart below. That purple wedge will have to work pretty hard for those "other priorities".

    And finally and perhaps most importantly, will farmers actually go for it? We’re hopeful that they will and I hope that the new President Meurig Raymond, gets behind the new scheme.  Wouldn't it be great if, in one of his early interventions, Mr Raymond made an clear statement about the need to farm profitably whilst helping to put wildlife back in the countryside?

    What do you think about NELMS and the new President of the NFU?

    It would be great to hear your views.

  • The RSPB Centre for Conservation Science: finding solutions to 21st century conservation problems

    It is a perennial frustration that many people I meet are unaware of the scale and breadth of our science programme.  It is a part of our work which rarely gets the attention that it deserves.  Which is why I am delighted that we are today launching our new RSPB Centre for Conservation Science.  We want to raise the profile of our "outstanding" science (see here) but also to announce our intent to work with others to find (and apply) solutions to 21st century conservation problems.  

    We have created a new online hub (see here) and this will feature a database of more than 1,000 peer reviewed papers written by RSPB scientists. We have also published Where Science Comes to Life, a report on some of the most important work carried out by our scientists over the past decade.

    From corncrakes and cirl buntings to vultures and albatrosses, we have helped (with a huge range of partners) identify conservation problems, discover the causes and identify practical solutions to help recover our most threatened wildlife.  

    But, lasting conservation success only comes if we are able to persuade others (usually decision-makers, land managers  or fishermen) to adopt these solutions.  There is only so much we do on our land.

    Which is why, as we look to the future, we need to consider why, when our science has helped identify solutions to big problems we have failed to get others to step up.  

    We have, for example, identified how to recover skylark populations whilst farming profitably (through our work at Hope Farm, see here) but have failed (to date) to adequately influence the design and promotion of farm incentive schemes to make them sufficiently attractive for enough farmers to create the right conditions for skylarks to thrive.  

    The illegal killing of birds of prey is another example where, with others, we have identified solutions (such as diversionary feeding of hen harriers to reduce their predation on red grouse - see here) but have failed to convince others to apply these practical solutions.   

    And, more topically, on our nature reserves and with organisations like United Utilities, we have shown how restoring natural upland habitats may not only contribute to reducing flood risk for downstream areas, but could also help some bird species adapt to the drier summers predicted under climate change.  With our uplands in such poor condition, we desperately need more people to adopt this approach to land management in the hills (as I have previously written here).  

    So, as we celebrate our past successes, we also planning for our science to evolve in the future.  Professor Sir John Lawton, chair of the independent panel that reviewed our science programme, said "the RSPB should undertake more social science...  we believe that economic analyses, conflict resolution, human behavioural studies, political science and governance are increasingly important in trying to find practical solutions to environmental problems".  

    We agree.  The pressures on the natural world are growing and the causes are increasingly complex.  We want to build on our excellent track record but embrace new disciplines.  We plan to reach out to others to address the major conservation challenges (such as the ten listed below).

    Do have a look at our new online hub.  And, while you are exploring, let me know if there are other conservation problems you think we should be addressing.

    It would be great to hear your views.

    Ten conservation challenges for the RSPB Centre for Conservation Science

    1. Improving our knowledge of the status of UK and UK Overseas Territories' wildlife.

    2. Understanding the causes of decline of UK's summer migrant birds.

    3. Improving the status of threatened species in the UK and overseas.

    4. Producing food, fibre, energy and infrastructure alongside wildlife.

    5. Guiding the restoration of degraded habitats and ecosystems.

    6. Understanding the impacts of, and helping wildlife adapt to, a changing climate.

    7. Understanding the impacts of environmental change in the oceans.

    8. Informing designation and management of protected areas on land and at sea.

    9. Understanding how people benefit from, and connect to, nature.

    10. Building capacity in conservation science.

  • Flooding and dredging - a reality check

    The RSPB has joined forces with angling and nature conservation organisations to support a new report by flood management experts (CIWEM) critiquing the contribution that dredging can make in preventing future floods.  You can read the report here.  

    We have made this intervention to counter some of the misinformation being bandied around about dredging and to influence the public debate about how we should adapt to and prepare for future flood events.

    The crisis is affecting thousands of people and is having a noticeable impact on the natural environment (although the scale of this may not be known for some time).  And today, the country braces itself for another battering with those already suffering in the West Country in the frontline once again.  For a first-hand account of what life is like living in the Somerset Levels at the moment, read this blog (here) from our Area Manager, Jane Brookhouse.

    The extreme weather is set to dominate the politcal debate for weeks to come.  And media interest, like the floods themselves, shows no sign of abating.  The 24-hour news culture means there is a lot of airtime and newspaper columns to fill.  Some of the commentary has been excellent while some of it has been simplistic or even disingenuous.  In particular, it is frustrating to hear those that continue to present dredging of our rivers as the golden bullet to solve all our future flooding problems. 

    Today's report provides a reality check on the contribution that dredging can make.  It begins by describing what dredging is, highlights its advantages and risks and considers when it might form part of a flood risk management strategy.

    We have repeatedly said that dredging can, in some places like the Somerset Levels, make a contribution to reducing the impacts of floods but we have also said that on its own it will be insufficient.  The report highlights studies on the Levels that show that the proposed dredge would not have prevented the floods but would significantly reduce the length of time water remains on the land.

    The report ends with an overview of the range of approaches to flood risk management - from hard engineering to natural solutions.  We shall be sharing it with decision-makers and hope that it helps shape their strategy for building resilience to future extreme weather events.

    Have a read and let me know what you think.

    It would be great to hear your views.