October, 2017

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
  • How to mind the “environmental governance gap” created by Brexit

    Laws are only as effective as their enforcement.

    So what happens when enforcement powers are lost? It surely follows that the effectiveness of the law diminishes?

    This is our fear when the UK leaves the European Union.   

    As a new report published today by IEEP and Client Earth highlights, EU institutions including the European Commission and the European Court of Justice provide us with a range of monitoring, compliance and enforcement mechanisms meaning there is robust implementation of and governance for EU environmental laws.

    Two guillemot, a bridled guillemot, a razorbill and a shag perch on a rock on the Isles of Scilly (Ed Marshall rspb-images.com)

    When the UK leaves the EU, it will therefore lose an important element in the governance of its environmental standards. This is important, not just because current EU arrangements ensure that environmental laws are properly implemented but because any shared environmental standards agreed as part of the future relationship between the EU and the UK will depend on having effective enforcement mechanisms in place. In their absence, there is no guarantee that any agreed environmental rules/commitments in a future UK/EU deal will be met.

    Let me explain. 

    The European Commission’s monitoring of Member States’ implementation of required legislation, backed up by the European Court of Justice’s ability to impose effective sanctions, has been vital in helping to ensure that our environmental legislation is effective and enforced.

    Perhaps the most totemic example of this was our legal challenge on Lappel Bank in the 1990s.  The internationally important intertidal mudflats Lappel Bank were excluded by the UK Government from the Medway Estuary and Marshes SPA for economic reasons and destroyed to extend a Port.  This was challenged by the RSPB and subsequently found to be unlawful. The proceedings were referred to the European Court of Justice (ECJ). The ECJ confirmed an important issue of principle, namely that sites that qualify as SPAs must be classified on their scientific merits and economic reasons cannot be taken into account at the designation stage and that compensatory habitat was needed to replace what was lost.

    Our experience suggests that the domestic courts have important roles to play in environmental governance but are often insufficient on their own to ensure effective implementation and enforcement of environmental law. As I have written before, judicial review is too narrow in terms of scope and remit (usually focusing on due process), too restrictive in terms of access, and too limited in terms of remedies and sanctions. The system does not compare to the existing arrangements within the EU, with no appointed overseer taking those actions. Basically our domestic institutions on their own are not adequate as things stand to fill the governance gap-in terms of scope, resource, expertise or accessibility.  

    This poses problems both for the UK Government’s commitment to ensure that environmental standards are maintained and enhanced and also for the EU 27, who have emphasised the importance of avoiding unfair competition arising from any potential weakening of environmental protection in the UK post-Brexit. In addition, it is clear that any lowering of standards in the UK or the EU could have negative environmental implications for both sides given that issues such as species conservation and air and water pollution do not respect borders/are transboundary in nature.

    Tackling this “governance gap” will require action on a number of fronts. In particular, new, independent institutions in the UK will be required with the responsibility and powers to ensure monitoring is carried out, possible breaches highlighted and compliance ensured, meaning environmental standards are enforced. In addition the important role of civil society needs to be recognised and their ability to get involved not limited as a result of Brexit. Therefore we need new governance mechanisms that will be able to effectively fill this governance gap. Given that environmental matters are largely devolved, this will require the UK and devolved governments to work closely together to address this gap. These new mechanisms need to:

    • Monitor and measure the state of the environment transparently
    • Ensure proper implementation of environmental law and policy. For example, by supervising plans that give effect to environmental law, overseeing permitting regimes (including responsibility for granting exemptions), and ensuring robust and consistent application of the law.
    • Check compliance with environmental law and policy by government, business and other actors. This includes reviewing progress against plans, assessing the legality of decisions and scrutinising whether targets, conditions and requirements are being adhered to.
    • Enforce environmental law by initiating investigations into possible breaches and responding to complaints from citizens and civil society organisations. Breaches must be identified and acted on, with the application of appropriate remedies and sanctions.
    • Review and report information regarding both the state of the natural world and performance against policy objectives.
    • Publish environmental information fully and transparently.

    The European Union (Withdrawal) Bill is designed to bring the European acquis into domestic legislation. However, as currently drafted (and as I have written previously here), it fails to require and ensure that the governance functions that we have as members of the EU are replaced at domestic level.

    If the UK Government wants to be true to its promise not to weaken levels of environmental protection as it leaves the EU, this has to be addressed and done quickly.  

  • Friday thoughts on farming's future

    I try to end the week with a bit of good news for a Friday, and as we come to the end of a short series of blogs about Brexit and farming (where admittedly the news has been pretty mixed), I wanted to conclude by saying why I think we’ve got a fantastic opportunity to get things right and set out a future that is good for farming, good for nature, and good for people.

    On Wednesday, Janet gave us some insights into the critical role that many farmers play in managing important habitat for species like curlew and lapwing. Much of this work is currently underpinned by agri-environment support. In the uplands, where some of the most ‘High Nature Value’ farming systems are already economically marginal, the future of that management is uncertain and will, to a large degree, depend on the direction of future policy and availability of financial support.

    Yesterday, Chris shared a different perspective, focussing on how upland farmers can build their resilience through careful business planning, by focussing on profitability rather than just productivity, and by working together to extract more value from within the supply chain. Chris highlighted how upland farmers’ environmental credentials can play an important role in creating brand recognition and achieving better value for top quality food.

    And last night, at a dinner for 40 European BirdLife partners, I listened to a Dutch dairy farmer, Alex Datema, explain why farming and the Common Agriculture Policy needed to change for both wildlife and for people.  Whether in or outside the EU, there appears to be consensus that the future of farming needs to be different. 

    From reading the various reports that have been published on this theme and reflecting on the contributions from Janet, Chris and Alex, some clear themes seem to be emerging:

    -       The future is uncertain, the picture is complex, and there are a huge mix of both risks and opportunities for farmers and for the environment.

    -       There is a vital role for public policy to play in shaping that future and ensuring that farmers who are doing great things for nature and the countryside are better rewarded – both through environmental management payments and through the supply chain.

    -       The difference between ‘getting it right’ and ‘getting it wrong’ is huge and now is the time to set the direction of travel.  If we get it right, I believe we can have sustainable, resilient and productive farming nested within a vibrant rural landscape where nature can thrive. If we get it wrong, the consequences for many farmers, for wildlife, and for the environment could be dire.

    That is why the RSPB, in collaboration with others, are calling for continued support for farmers and land managers based on the principle of ‘public money for public goods’. At a time when public expenditure will need to be justified more robustly than ever before, we argue that by supporting continued public investment in farming and land management in return for these public benefits, we are acting in the long-term interests of not just the environment, but also the farming community. This argument is supported by recent statements from the Secretary of State, that “…support can only be argued for against other competing public goods if the environmental benefits of that spending are clear”.

    Our proposals for future policy, alongside the recent report we commissioned on Brexit, are intended to be a constructive, pragmatic and ambitious contribution to the ongoing debate about the future of the countryside post-Brexit, and will form the basis of conversations we have with farmers, land managers, other NGOs, Government and other stakeholders across the UK in the months ahead.

    We can’t talk for too long though. To do so risks the uncertainty of Brexit turning into drift and stagnation, something that can only increase the risks for both farming and nature. If Brexit is an ‘unfrozen moment’, we need a plan in place before the winter comes.

  • How can hill farmers survive Brexit?

    Today, I’m delighted to host the second of this week’s guest blogs reflecting on what Brexit might mean for hill farmers, following the publication of an RSPB commissioned report to understand the potential impacts. Chris Clark is a hill farmer and business consultant from the Yorkshire Dales.

    Alongside his wife Fiona, Chris runs a 170 hectare beef and sheep farm in Langstrothdale in the Yorkshire Dales National Park. As well as producing and marketing rare-breed sheep and cattle, Chris and Fiona have diversified their farm business to include self-catering accommodation, an education centre and two observational hides, and a biomass boiler backed up by solar panels to provide sustainable heating and hot water. Their farm is also home to a whole host of wildlife including curlew, black grouse, short-eared owls, crossbills, red squirrels, otters, and brown trout.

    How can hill farmers survive Brexit?

    The importance of the role that farmers play within the upland landscape is well understood by most within the agricultural and environmental sectors. But there are justifiable concerns about the impact Brexit will have on the future of hill farming, not least the looming reduction of farm support payments. 

    The big worry of course is the fundamental issue of farm profitability. What if there is no area support and not enough environmental payments for uplands in say, 10 years’ time? How will farms and the upland landscape change?  Will farm businesses stop, amalgamate, collaborate or do something else?  How should government, agricultural and environmental leaders help farmers survive?

    The uncertainty is exacerbated by the already marginal viability of hill farms. According to DEFRA, in 2014/15 half of all UK farmers failed to cover their costs of production.  And even with support payments, almost 20% of farms failed to achieve a farm business income.  This will almost certainly be higher on hill farms. 

    The stock in trade for most hill farmers is sheep but the truth is that the UK demand for lamb as a commodity is in long-term decline. And the age demographic of lamb consumption shows it’s being dominated by older people.

    Demographics also plays a part in the entrepreneurial inertia of an ageing farming population - many farmers are set in their ways and maintain the unprofitable status quo.

    However, change they will have to.

    Of course, every farmer’s situation is different. Geology, soil type, altitude and weather all have an influence as well as the needs and wants of the farming family managing the business. But all hill farmers need to examine the intersection between productivity and profitability.  Depending on the business, a better model might be achieved by, amongst other things, a combination of: reducing variable costs, reducing fixed costs, finding income from outside the farm, collaboration; taking control of the downstream food supply chain, diversification (but only when the core business is sound).

    Look at beef production for example. It could be three or four years before any return might accrue, very hard for a marginal hill farm to manage, particularly when the unenviable capital required is added to the equation. Public policy will have a role to play here, such as through environmental land management payments and potentially capital investment in cattle handling facilities and housing, but hill farmers also need to find more certain routes to making a profit. 

    The primary answer relies on businesses that are strategically better budgeted and better planned and that trust business models with the appropriate interaction of profitability and productivity.  However, understanding the secondary flaws in a hill farming business also helps to understand where to find a solution.

    At the moment, typically, a hill farmer will sell the product, say lamb, through a wholesaler to a meat processor who then sells to a merchant.  That merchant will set prices and sell to a retailer, who markets to the end user.This route gives the hill farmer 15% of the final price to consumer, while the retailer takes 35%. The meat processors and merchants can take a staggering 50% 

    So, what if hill farmers did the job of the processors and merchants as well as taking a slice of the retail trade?

    Some hill farmers, perhaps working with their regional National Park or Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, could form regionally-based producer groups. They can then offer products which are unique to their region. The merchant is cut out and the farms take a far greater share of the profits.

    And then taking a slice of the retail trade might well take the form of denying the supermarkets access to the group’s brands, except at a premium.

    The bottom line is hill farmers and its’ leaders need to urgently plan and budget in these uncertain times. They need to radically reassess the way hill farms work if they are to survive and for our uplands to remain intact.

    In particular hill farming leaders should be working to ensure the survival of the existing structure of hill farm holdings, particularly the smaller family farm, tenanted, managed and owned, by firstly, promoting planning and budgeting for the future and encouraging farmers to expeditiously adapt accordingly.  Secondly, assisting farm businesses move from a primarily production based business model to one motivated by margin, preferably margin derived from a value-added driven producer group.  This will inevitably mean a move from commodities to branded produce where the branding articulates a differentiation, an implied guarantee of quality and a consistency in the product. 

    Focusing on profitability and added value produce can also align strongly with environmental outcomes in the uplands, as well as improving financial resilience. In this way, hill farmers can position themselves to benefit from a future policy centred around public goods and the Secretary of State’s ‘Green Brexit’, whilst putting environmental credentials at the heart of a brand that will really resonate with consumers.