If the Conservative Party wants to know how to run an event then they could ask the RSPB.  I’m not sure what would count as the Leader’s speech but none of Miranda Krestovnikoff (President), Steve Ormerod (outgoing Chair) or Mike Clarke (Chief Exec) did any coughing or were handed P45s, and no letters fell out of the RSPB’s name or strapline.

It was all very smooth and professional – and for the first time you could have watched the AGM from the comfort of your own home through live streaming.  If any reader of this blog did do that, please let us know in a comment how it was for you.

There were several moving moments but two are worth noting here. The AGM is when the RSPB presents its RSPB Medal and this year the medal went to the late Dick Potts as reported here back in March. Olga Potts received the Medal yesterday and said a few apt and well-chosen words.

Philip Astor asking his annual question about killing things.  Nice Kite though.

Also, Stuart Housden, known to some as The Monarch of the Glen for his 23 years as the RSPB’s Director Scotland (which followed 17 years at The Lodge) is retiring – not a word often used about Stuart – and he gave a very good talk about RSPB achievements in Scotland.  Stuart has been a stalwart of the RSPB for decades – but I intend to say more about that next week.

Stuart also had the task of responding to a question from the floor asked by GWCT trustee Philip Astor.  I had a little chat with Philip about pixelated faces but he asked the RSPB about pesky Foxes and why the RSPB had stopped killing them at Abernethy. I didn’t know the RSPB had stopped killing Foxes and I was interested to hear why since I played a role in increasing the Fox death toll at Abernethy because back then, a long time ago, the evidence seemed to point to this helping Capercaillie (although I remember it as being a bit marginal even then).  Stuart said that there are quite a few ‘sporting’ estates which kill lots of Foxes which have lost their Capercaillies and quite a few estates without Fox control which have kept theirs – that’s quite interesting isn’t it?  And maybe Foxes keep the Pine Martens under control a bit and we know they are another predator of Capercaillies.  Interesting – and so the RSPB is ceasing Fox control at Abernethy for three years to see what happens. Sounds very sensible to me.

The RSPB keeps talking about the defence of the Nature Directives as a massive success which is a bit odd really but does show that RSPB approves of people signing petitions to get politicians to do the right thing – here’s one that is worth considering.  It’s odd because, of course, we are leaving the EU and the Directives behind us and it remains to be seen whether future governments will properly maintain the levels of protection in the UK or start pretty quickly to dismantle them.  Apparently 60,000 RSPB members signed the petition to save the Nature Directives, I wonder how many signed this one to save our uplands – maybe the same number do you think?

I paid more attention than usual to the Treasurer’s report (by Graeme Wallace). Times are hard (not crushingly hard as the RSPB spent just under £100m on its charitable purposes last year), but hard enough given the scale of the task.  The RSPB Pension Scheme has closed to staff but its deficit remains and increased last year.  Grant income went down by £4m and is expected to decrease further in future years as we do that Brexit thing and as austerity continues in the public sector and for individuals. And whilst legacies are now at an eye-watering £34m per annum that was helped by a couple of big ones that cannot be relied upon every year.  The RSPB has financial reserves of £33m which is a lot of money, but only enough to run the organisation if all other money suddenly ceased coming in (which, of course it won’t) for 16 weeks.  Those financial reserves look likely to be called upon over the next few years for the pension fund hole and to replace grant income – but it looks likely that there will be further cuts to RSPB’s conservation programme ahead.  And if the RSPB is feeling the pinch – think of other charities which may be even more dependent on grants…

And then on top of that, changes to legislation mean that lots of organisations will be asking you to opt in to receiving communications from them – being a member of the RSPB will soon no longer mean that you have agreed that the RSPB can contact you.  Jo Coker gave a very clear talk about this aspect and I rushed home to fill in the form online (I said yes to postal and email contacts) and I suggest you have a look at it too.  You’ll find lots of other charities asking you similar questions over the next few months.

So it was a good event as always – lots of friends there including many RSPB staff and many readers of this blog too.  I didn’t see anyone who looked like the Conservative Party taking notes but Songbird Survival’s Keith Cowieson was present and he has a lot to learn too.


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18 Replies to “RSPB AGM”

  1. Hi Mark

    A little off topic perhaps, but I wondered whether you'd heard this? It's long (2 hours) but it's a conversation about grouse moor management and driven grouse shooting, between the RSPB's Duncan Orr-Ewing and the GWCT's Adam Smith, hosted by the Pace brothers who run a production company making films (mostly) about how wonderful hunting and shooting is. Cheers.

    1. I only listened to it from your given start at 1hr 10min in but if ever there was a reason for Rewilding, that is it.
      Quite difficult to listen to Duncan Orr-Ewing pretty much poo-pooing rewilding but when he gets onto Mountain Hare culling, he is magnificent.
      Adam Smith (GWCT) pretends to like science but he is exposed as another spin doctor who wants to avoid firm data at any cost when it might not tell him what he wants.
      Many hilarious moments but i love it when the compère talks about not making large changes at it might have unintended consequences. I thought 'that sounds sensible'. Then it transpired he wasn't talking about mass culling which must be a relatively new thing (partly i am sure because of increased access with more roads and quad bikes), no he was talking about the terrifyingly threatening idea of a moratorium.
      Well worth a listen but if you are anything like me, best tie your computer or cover it with cushions down before listening, you might want to throw it out the window. I would be very surprised if the most sane person didn't start shouting so it should come with a health warning.

  2. One of those nerdy, behind the scenes things that no one ever gets any credit for is that RSPB whilst taking Government grants has never allowed itself to get in the position of being beholden to - or financially dependant on - Government. So it is suffering some pain, yes, with cuts but it is in no way compromised -nor is its independent voice threatened.

    1. The ROYAL Society for the Protection of Birds is completely beholden to the government, and it is, or during the Cameron era was, noticeably quiet. If it makes too many wrong moves then the Royal part of its name vanishes. That has been used as a cudgel to keep it quiet and inline.

  3. Good to see you again Mark. Surely the point about the Nature Directives is that they apply to the whole of Europe (and will do if/after we leave) and we played a vital part in preserving them. (btw, good legal piece in yesterday's Guardian suggesting it will be easy if we want to change our minds about leaving - I haven't given up hope!)

    The pension fund deficit is very theoretical - when long term interest rates rise it will reduce dramatically, so I don't think it's a big problem. It's only the final salary scheme that has closed of course.

    I always think the average age of attendees at the AGM is a bit of a worry but obviously parents with children will be doing other things. I imagine the age profile of the membership is much healthier! It was interesting to hear Mike Clarke say membership is currently hovering around 1.25m.

    1. Bob W - good to see you too, and thanks for introducing yourself.

      the Nature Directives will apply to the whole of the EU after we leave (if we do) but then the RSPB contributed an important but relatively modest proportion of the overall total and they won't apply to us! It's a bit of a theoretical victory and the RSPB seems to think it's the best thing they've done for ages (and never mention Brexit in the same breath) - it still seems very odd to me.

      The pension fund deficit is not that theoretical because, post Robert Maxwell, there has to be an agreed plan to fill it! You watch some of those rather slim financial reserves head that way next year... It is the RSPB Pension Scheme that has closed but the RSPB will still make pension contributions for staff into private schemes indeed. But one of the real, but undervalued benefits, of working for the RSPB was a very good pension scheme (less good than the statutory agencies of course, but much better than most smaller NGOs). I'll be alright Jack - I was there at the right time!

      Yes, as with many of these things, one assumes that anyone younger than oneself must be a staff member and everyne older is a member - and that would be right most of the time!

      1. Thanks Mark. Points taken!

        If MPs do their job properly and make sure Henry VIII powers can only be used for minor admin matters, parliament will have to vote on any dilution of environmental protections on us leaving the EU. We all know the Brexit plan is to dilute these protections but I assume it would then need a positive vote in both houses for the government to do so. That might not be so easy to achieve so the Nature Directives could still be very valuable to us - I hope!

        The Trustees report (on the website) says "staff were transferred to a defined contribution scheme" which is effectively what you are saying. They are the norm now of course, except in the public sector. It will be a shame if the need for a revised long-term plan leads to short term cuts. As so often in the UK these days, the excesses of the few seem to lead to pain for the many - often without much common sense being applied.

  4. Yes, Mark. I'm afraid so. I'd strongly recommend a look at the CLA's ideas for the future of land use which may come as quite a shock to many - they have embraced an outcome led, public benefit approach which never mentions the primacy of agriculture and embraces real issues like carbon and water. Streets away, I'm afraid, from offerings from the likes of Wildlife Link which are still glued to 20th c sectoral wish lists. CLA, I think, realise what they are up against - for the first time in 70 years a head on competition for public funds. What others don't realise is that there is no safe little pot anymore, where the main issue is who gets what - now, everyone could lose their shirt, whether farmer or conservationist.

  5. "It’s odd because, of course, we are leaving the EU and the Directives behind us and it remains to be seen whether future governments will properly maintain the levels of protection in the UK or start pretty quickly to dismantle them."

    "We all know the Brexit plan is to dilute these protections but I assume it would then need a positive vote in both houses for the government to do so."

    This is way too pessimistic! Why can't we improve the levels of protection? After all, we have banned hunting with dogs, while the EU cannot because of the French. The UK has ALWAYS had higher standards of animal welfare than mainland Europe...

    I have had direct experience of trying to get the EU Commission to uphold its own Habitats Directive - over the unnecessary destruction of a rare colony of bats - only to find that the Commission REFUSED to allow my case to proceed to the European Court, with no right to appeal their dictatorial decision.

    There is another aspect which has to be addressed: habitat loss is the single most important factor in the loss of wildlife abundance and biodiversity, while Freedom of Movement is the equal most important factor in the large growth of the UK population driving this habitat loss.

    There is LITTLE FUTURE for wildlife if human population growth is not halted, and that applies everywhere... Human population growth drives not only habitat loss but also climate change (likely to become the future single-most-important-factor in the loss of wildlife abundance and biodiversity).

    Is human population growth the elephant-in-the-room that conservationists are reluctant to acknowledge?

    1. Keith - tell that to Jacob Rees-Mogg and his seventh son Septimus.

      We could improve the protection except there have been a whole line of Brexit supporters who have criticised the existing protection and have cited removing it as a reason to vote for Brexit - so it's less pessimism and more taking them at their word.

      1. I agree about Rees-Mogg, and the Tory right-wing 'nutjob' brigade, but.... a huge number of people voted for Brexit principally because of the pressure on housing, jobs, GPs, hospitals and general infrastructure over-loading being wrought by Freedom of Movement.

        We now produce less than 50% of the food we require to survive, whilst sacrificing more and more productive agricultural land to building for our exploding population. That is unsustainable.

        But the 'nutjob' brigade do not hold a majority in the Tory Party, and never did. Theresa May lost her Parliamentary majority because (a) she believed her own propaganda about Jeremy Corbyn and (b) she proposed winding the clock back on Fox hunting (I simplify, of course). That is a powerful message: the British people are animal lovers. We love our countryside.

        We would love our farmers, too, if they supported wildlife more. Gove is making really good noises. If the Tories threaten our wildlife protections, the electorate will react strongly. The great Tory wildlife-haters (Osborne and Cameron with their 'green-crap' attitude) are dust.

        What is all this damaging development for if it isn't to support an increasing population? HS2: train overcrowding. New towns: housing crisis. New roads: congestion. (NHS crisis: cannot meet increased demand. Over-crowded classrooms: increased numbers of children etc)

        May does not appear to be wildlife-friendly, but the Party knows it is an emotive issue, and one which has already damaged them. There are plenty of Tory MPs who support wildlife-friendly legislation and Stanley Johnson is a re-wilder!

        The motive force within the electorate for Brexit was NOT to remove wildlife protection: it was to slow down/halt immigration. Most Tory MPs know this, and most Labour MPs also know this (listen to Caroline Flint). Even within the EU there is growing recognition that Freedom of Movement is a problem.

        PS. I quite like Rees-Mogg, but his Catholic policies I find appalling.

    2. Keith, it would be wonderful if protections could be increased. Unfortunately, the "we need a bonfire of regulations" approach will triumph if we are not very watchful and lucky.

      Global human population growth is a major problem, which certainly I acknowledge and have mentioned in a previous blog comment here. Misuse of land in developing and developed countries is an equally serious issue. You can see it in the UK on driven grouse moors... At the AGM I had the pleasure of chatting to someone who had been expelled from Uganda (as a child, with his family) by Idi Amin. I don't agree with you about the effects of immigration into the UK on habitat loss and loss of biodiversity - it's stupid planning decisions and ill-thought-out policies with unintended consequences that cause most damage. Generally, governments in the UK are not good at decision making. Follow the money!

      1. Concerning immigration and the UK I supply the figures for my county: Oxfordshire. There are approximately 650,000 people living in Oxfordshire. It has taken about 10,000 years to reach that number. However, the Strategic Housing Market Assessment - which still has official Government support - has decided that Oxfordshire's population should increase by about 250,000 over the next 14 years. That represents around a 38% increase in the human population within just the next 14 years! To accommodate that increase the Green Belt has to be substantially destroyed. What is supposed to happen to Oxfordshire's population in the 14 years which follow that? Oxfordshire is not alone. What does anyone expect to happen to Oxfordshire's wildlife with that policy?

        1. Thanks Keith. Developments, of all kinds, need to be in the right place. We are not very good at that. That's why the RSPB is fighting wind turbines in the Firth of Forth and houses at Watton, for example. If Brexit goes ahead the cry will be: jobs, jobs, jobs; and anything that stands in the way (or appears to!) will be swept aside, biodiversity included.

  6. Excellent and encouraging report Mark - thanks for it. One thing among many that I like about the RSPB and think worth bringing up here is that as far as I am aware they've never entered into a dodgy sponsorship or corporate relationship (I am prepared to be contradicted, but even so it must be a rare event). They didn't, like the Wildlife Trusts, take £10,000 from Nestle in return for bumming up their bottled water a bit or the Woodland Trust Scotland taking £30,000 from Highland Spring another bottled water producer - in a country with some of the best and cleanest tap water in the country. Giving the thumbs up to bottled water makes a mockery of waste reduction and climate change policies - bottled water is also a huge waste of money, much of which could be going to good causes instead. This does relate to the RSPB's financial situation, a lot of the more traditional sources of income look increasingly shaky and pretty much all charities are in the same boat. There must be huge potential in using reduce, reuse, recycle in new and innovative ways especially paired with information technology to dramatically increase the funding pot for all charities - increasingly I'm not sure we have any choice but to pursue this where else is new money going to come from? In spite of my council area having one of the most comprehensive kerbside recycling systems in the whole of Scotland approx one million quid is lost per year because people still put recyclables in the waste bin. I did back of the envelope calculations a few years ago that indicated up to three million quid is spent on bottled water in my area per year especially frustrating when there's a story, maybe apocryphal, that a visiting French chemist tested our tap water and found it was better than Evian water.


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