Before I complete my migration from the RSPB to start my new job as BirdLife International's Regional Director for Europe and Central Asia, I want to offer some final reflections from my decade as Conservation Director. Today, I talk about our practical conservation work on and off nature reserves.
About 70% of the RSPB’s total conservation expenditure is dedicated to practical work to protect and restore sites and species. Arguably, this offers the strongest guarantee of a return on investment of charitable resource but, of course, will always be geographically constrained which is why we try to influence the policy and regulatory context for the way land and sea is managed outside of protected areas. Much of RSPB’s practical conservation is focused on our network of 222 nature reserves covering >160,000 hectares across the UK but it also covers our species recovery work outside nature reserves (the focus of my next reflection) and that which we do with partners in the 14 UK Overseas Territories and globally.
Throughout my time as Conservation Director, I always tried to get out to see the work we are doing to make things better for wildlife. By talking to colleagues and partners in situ, you get a much better idea of what is and what is not working. It helped me work out how the RSPB needed to evolve to support this work while the practical experience helps us make the case to decision-makers about what needs to be done to make to it easier for people to do good things for wildlife beyond nature reserves. The spin-off benefit is that I also saw amazing wildlife in some incredible places.
The RSPB embraced landscape-scale conservation in the early 2000s pioneering its Futurescapes programme. Like the Wildlife Trusts’ Living Landscapes programme, this laid the foundation for the work we do today, but we needed the seminal Making Space for Nature report of 2010 for our sector to fully embrace the creation of more, bigger, better and connected protected areas. Since then, we have collectively acquired huge experience which we have pooled to create a recipe for success.
Today, the RSPB is concentrating our effort on 37 UK priority landscapes. We want these landscapes to be transformed for wildlife but also act as exemplars, inspiring action by others. This takes time, but having signalled that this was the direction of travel that we are going, it has been incredibly rewarding seeing the way in which our teams have found creative ways to develop major partnerships which drive action at a much larger scale. For example, we have created Cairngorms Connect which is a partnership of neighbouring land managers working towards a shared vision across 60,000 hectares within the Cairngorms National Park including the RSPB’s iconic Abernethy and Insh Marshes nature reserves. On Purbeck, we forged a partnership with six other organisations to create a “super national nature reserve” covering >3,300 hectares of lowland heathland. Operating at scale and in partnership with others on and off our reserves is now mainstream in RSPB’s thinking from the Garron Plateau to the Flow Country, from Snowdonia to the Lake District and Suffolk coast.
RSPB Haweswater courtesy of Michael Harvey (rspb-images.com)
In terms of our approach to managing these special places, my two guiding principles have always been scale and heterogeneity. The smaller the site, the more interventionist you need to be to create the diverse conditions for wildlife to flourish. Operating over a larger area means that, theoretically, the diversity will emerge often after you have kicked started natural processes through interventions such as deer control to allow vegetation to bounce back, blocking drains to restore blanket bogs or punching holes in the sea wall as part of managed realignment projects (as we did, for example, at Medmerry and Wallasea). Perhaps my favourite example is the river restoration project at Swindale Beck at RSPB Haweswater where, with our landlords United Utility and in partnership with Environment Agency, we intervened to allow the river to escape the confines of its straight channels, find its natural curves providing the microhabitats that allowed nature to bounce back. If you haven't done so already, do check out this video of the project. And, if you are patient you can read about this and the whole Haweswater experience in my colleague Lee Schofield's new book, Wild Fell, which will be published next year.
I welcomed the challenge from those (like George Monbiot in his book Feral) who advocated “Rewilding” because, in the end, we share the objective of restoring ecologically processes. Sadly, the term has become so divisive in parts of the UK that it can undermine work with local communities who don’t think they have a place in a rewilded landscape. Yet, it is unquestionable that projects like the Knepp Estate, home of Charlie Burrell and Isabella Tree, have had a massive impact on conservation thinking.
We need a diversity of approaches to drive the restoration revolution over the coming decade without neglecting the urgent need to protect the most important sites. This is particularly important for the RSPB’s international work where enormous human pressures threaten remaining areas of natural habitat. It is why, this decade, the RSPB acquired its first bit of land on Cayman Islands - one of the UK Overseas Territories. And, it is why the RSPB continues to work in three mega landscapes: Gola, Harapan, Altyn Dala. I only managed to get to one of these sites while at the RSPB but it was an opportunity to see first-hand the impact that the RSPB has had by working with the Sierra Leone and Liberian governments, national BirdLife partners and local communities. We have been working in Gola for more than thirty years, through civil wars, Ebola and now, of course the Covid-19 pandemic. The vision is to create a transboundary peace park which protects the incredibly biodiversity of the forest supported by local communities who live and work in harmony with the forest. More than that, we want and need Gola to be an inspiration for how to protect and restore forests across Upper Guinean forest which is one of the top 35 biodiversity hotspots in the world. Carbon financing, sustainable supply chain of forest-friendly chocolate and application of community forest concepts are just some of the interventions that have been key to success.
As we embark on the UN Decade of Ecosystem Restoration, hopefully supported by a new global deal for nature, we need to learn the lessons from what have achieved in the past and continue to innovate. Arguably, the political climate is becoming more helpful as we have been pressing both the UK Government and EU to establish legal targets for nature’s recovery (with some success as demonstrated by this week's announcement) and world leaders increasingly to recognise the value of investing in nature to help with both climate change mitigation and adaptation. We shall all be arguing for more public money to support nature restoration (either through agriculture subsidy reform or to complement existing grants such as the UK Nature and Climate Fund and the £3 billion of UK international climate finance supporting nature) and will continue to be creative about how to drive conservation investment (including through debt and equity finance). But, everyone needs to be mindful of the capacity of the sector to deliver both here and internationally while ensuring that restoration projects are done to the highest quality. We need to invest in a skills and jobs programme for our sector and we should be having conversations with governments across the UK about this now. Not only will this help deliver government commitments, it can, as Green Alliance recently reported, make a contribution to addressing the unemployment challenge posed by the pandemic.
I know the RSPB will want to look back in 2030 and not only be able to celebrate what it has achieved but also be confident that it has helped build the foundations for a vibrant nature conservation sector for the subsequent decade because we shall be remedying the damage we have caused for generations to come.
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