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 efforts to influence public policy, law, attitudes and behaviour.
Early on in my career, I realised that I was not I was not going to be a research biologist. I wasn’t very good at it and I didn’t have the patience to really enjoy it. Instead, I became interested in the way in which decisions made by those in power affect the natural world.
It’s why I ended up working for the RSPB as I’d seen first-hand and was attracted by the impact of its advocacy. Throughout our 132-year history we have tried to change the way in which society relates to the millions of species with which we share this planet. This started with Victorian women successfully campaigning against the use of bird feathers and wild birds in the hat trade (perhaps the first ever global footprint campaign) and has evolved to tackle a huge range of issues during its history from site or species based protection through to tackling systemic drivers like unsustainable agriculture policy and climate change.
For much of this decade, we have had to be on the defensive to retain laws that protect nature (which were repeatedly attacked by Westminster and European politicians and became vulnerable when the UK voted to leave the European Union) but now I believe the tide has turned. We are winning the argument that we face a twin crises of catastrophic climate change and biodiversity loss, we are (as demonstrated by this week's UK Government announcement) winning the argument that we need targets in law to drive nature’s recovery, we are winning the argument that agriculture subsidies need to be overhauled to support wildlife-friendly farming and we are winning the argument that the UK needs to reduce the impact through consumption of its ecological footprint abroad. More than that, we have politicians today who seem less apologetic about talking about the importance of nature illustrated by the UK Government signing up to the Leaders’ Pledge for Nature and committing to protecting (and hopefully managing) 30% of land and sea by 2030 as part of the High Ambition Coalition. The trauma of the pandemic has woken up some people because its origins probably lie in the way humans have treated nature but also because many people have valued reconnecting to nature during lockdown.
I take nothing for granted and politicians have a habit of not delivering on promises, but I do think that the environmental coherence of government policy in parts of the UK is better than it was (see for example the Well-being of Future Generations Act in Wales). Yet, something continues to go wrong with implementation. Ambition is not backed up by resources, enforcement of environmental law is lax, short-term economic priorities often trump long term environmental stewardship and that is why species declines have yet to be reversed. Even today, just as we think we are making progress (as has been the case with farm subsidy reform or the partial ban of burning vegetation on peatlands), governments seem to apply the brakes. It can be a case of two steps forward, one step back.
Over the coming months and years somebody (and often that has meant the RSPB) needs to retain a focus on the detail as well as the big picture of nature conservation law and policy. The words in new laws matter because ultimately they will be tested in court while the clout of the new independent watchdogs being established across the UK (such as the Office for Environmental Protection and Environmental Standards Scotland) to replace the powers of the European Institutions is as key determinant of our ability to hold governments to account.
Ben Andrew's image of the Lodge turbine (rspb-images.com)
The RSPB has developed enormous strength through its “inside-track advocacy”, at times feeling as though we run a shadow civil service tracking every government consultation and select committee inquiry. This is probably why the RSPB is usually seen as a critical friend by many civil servants. But, during this decade we have adopted different tactics because we felt we were not having the impact we wanted. Some did not take kindly to this. For example, when we used freedom of information requests to build our case for making a formal complaint to the European Commission over the UK’s failing to designate Special Protection Areas for seabirds, a senior Defra civil servant said to me that this was a tactic that they expected from the fishing federations but not from the RSPB! But we did make the complaint, as we did over the UK’s failure to ban burning on peatlands and we mounted a number of other legal challenges including: the expansion of Lydd airport (lost although there were elements in the judgement which were helpful such as functioning linked land should be treated as an important part of SPAs and any losses to it mitigated ); the Firth of Forth wind farm (lost on appeal having won the original challenge), the proposed Ribble gull cull (won on appeal), government plans to weaken the power of judicial review and constrain access to environmental justice (won) and the pilot hen harrier brood management scheme (awaiting result of appeal).
Of course, we’d prefer it if things didn’t end up in court which is why we use a range of other tactics to influence change. Convincing those in power is both an art and a science. Some (such as former Conservative whip and now RSPB trustee Lord John Randall or RSPB medal winner Caroline Lucas, the first and still only Westminster Green MP) are instinctively very happy to speak up for nature while others find their voice over time. We, and other NGOs, have tried to nurture this through the parliamentary species champions concept first used for Members of the Scottish Parliament. We help politicians to learn more about individual species and then encourage them to advocate on their behalf. It’s a long term investment of effort but I think justified.
Arguably, our most influential interventions are rooted in practical demonstration projects where, for example, we have shown that it is possible to reverse the decline of farmland birds while maintaining profitable farming (for example at Hope Farm), that restoring habitats (as we have done at St Aidan’s, Medmerry and Haweswater) can help with flood risk management, that it is possible to generate renewable electricity without damaging wildlife (as we demonstrated through the wind turbine at our headquarters, the Lodge, as part of our internal decarbonisation agenda*), that it is possible to build new homes for both people at wildlife (as we are showing at Kingsbrook), that it is possible to catch fish rather than albatrosses (through the BirdLife albatross task force) and that you can eat chocolate to help save a rainforest (for example by eating Gola chocolate).
Yet, to get to all politicians on side requires a range of different approaches including the mass mobilisation of people at both constituency and national levels. With others, we have organised mass lobbies on climate change, nature protection laws and on the need for a green recovery from the pandemic. These have been complemented by petitions or targeted letter-writing campaigns. Despite the rise of clicktivism, this is still, in part, a numbers game. We set a new record when 520,000 people (supporting 100 different organisations) responded to a European Commission consultation on the future of the EU Nature Directives and this was instrumental in preventing them from being watered down. This week, we are thanking >160,000 people who signed the Wildlife and Countryside Link “State of Nature” campaign to urge the Prime Minister to set a legally binding target in the Environment Bill. Last week's announcement showed that their voices have been (at least partially) heard.
New players have arrived to complement these traditional approaches to campaigning. Extinction Rebellion has taken to our streets while Fridays for the Future has meant the voices of young people are being heard more than ever before. These are the new cheerleaders for radical environmental change. The RSPB will always occupy a slightly different niche in part because of its practical conservation work within local communities but also because it has a different ways of capturing the hearts and minds of the public such as Big Garden Birdwatch in which more than a million people took part this year, the release of Let Nature Sing – a track made up of birdsong – which made it into the Top 20, or the Vote for Bob campaign which sought to raise the profile of nature during the 2015 general election campaign (while operating within the constraints of the Transparency of Lobbying Act 2014).
Creating an unstoppable movement for change to address the nature and climate emergency requires a diversity of voices and tactics and the challenge is for everybody and every organisation to find out what works best for them. The RSPB is no different and must continue to experiment to work out how best to activate more people to take action for nature, pointing to those campaigning initiatives that seem to be getting cut through, while retaining a laser-like focus on advocacy objectives: to secure a global deal for nature, while taking action domestically to set legal targets for nature’s recovery, secure farm subsidy reform and mobilise more finance for nature across the four countries of the UK. When international agreements are struck and new laws in place, I have no doubt that the RSPB will continue to hold decision-makers to account and expose actions that undermine attempts to restore nature in a generation.
*The subject of the Lodge wind turbine was the trigger for the only time where I was heckled at the RSPB's AGM. Fortunately, the response from the rest of the membership was lovely as they basically told the man (and it was only one bloke) to be quiet and allowed me to continue to make my case.
Great article Martin. You'll be much missed. All the very best
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