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Conservation organisations pleading poverty whilst wasting 'millions' of public funds

Research suggests public opinion is increasingly believing the conservation industry is more interested in acquiring riches than in conserving nature.

They are assisted in this ambition to be ever richer by the willingness of some, perhaps most, of the people and organisations who hand out vast sums of public money, to rubber stamp anything coming from the 'right people'.

This is understandable because the distributors of public largesse and the recipients are virtually indistinguishable, and often interchangeable. The person sitting in judgement on today's application may soon be applying for a grant overseen by today's applicant.

Does this matter? Aren't the people and organisations involved entirely altruistic and trustworthy? Surely everyone involved in conservation will work together, for the greater good of nature and wildlife, and so the normal checks and balances that apply to giving money to less exalted human beings, outside the new altruistic conservation elite, need not be applied.

If that airy assumption is not true, we are in trouble, and the people handing out the money should be in trouble. If it is not true, millions of pounds of public money will have been wasted and millions of pounds worth of conservation benefit will have been syphoned off to pay senior managers more money and fill pension funds instead of increasing the numbers of curlew or sequestering carbon.

Worse, those millions will not have been given to the, often more effective, small local initiatives, who lack the resources and the friends in high places that enable the big players to suck up most of the available cash.

So is there any indication that all may not be as it should be? Regular readers may guess the answer but let us recap.

The Welsh government giving RSPB £637,359.32 between 2015-2019 basically to 'do stuff'. When asked what the outcomes were that they expected for this vast amount of money they could answer in only the vaguest of terms and had no idea if what they thought might happen actually had.

The Welsh government, again, giving RSPB a further £318,042.98p to do maintenance work on Natura 2000 sites which are RSPB reserves. This is said, by the Welsh government, to be because the RSPB had 'funding gaps' in the budgets of the relevant reserves.

During the first lull in Covid the Welsh government, again, said that (jointly with NRW) they would give the RSPB £194,379 and the National Trust £229,367 so they could safely reopen their facilities including their commercial ones.

The Welsh government, again, gave RSPB £347,795 to refurbish their cafe, toilets and car parks at South Stack on Anglesey.

The RSPB in partnership with the National Trust, (and others) applied to the Heritage Lottery Fund for £637,000 for a project in the Peak District called Upland Skies. In this application RSPB stated that its resources were, 'simply not enough without the HLF grant' and that, 'To deliver such a large engagement project will require more resources than each organisation has available'. Whilst they eventually didn't get the full amount, probably because Covid intervened, they did get £91,900 'Development Money'.

In Orkney RSPB got over £60,000 from the Scottish government to write an application form for circa £6,000,000 from the EU to kill stoats, and then apparently cut and paste the same application to get another £4,296,000 from HLF to, you've guessed it, kill stoats on Orkney.

Their application includes several references to not being able to afford the work, summed up with, in their words, 'the resources required are beyond the means of partners'.

At Lake Vyrnwy in Wales, where RSPB manages a 10,000 acre estate for the giant utility company Severn Trent (now its satellite Hafren/Dyfrdwy), they received £497,100 from the HLF. This was on the basis that the habitat they are responsible for was degraded and releasing vast amounts of CO2 and the rare birds, for which the reserve had been established, were about to become extinct on the site and if they didn't get the money.

Then there are the deals with the private sector, which are, by their nature, often secret. Rarely do any of them see the light of day, so we can only guess at the quid pro quos that operate.

The one that did emerge from the shadows was however revealing. A distillery gave RSPB £380,000 to 'conserve' the moorland vegetation on just 160 hectares of one of RSPB's own reserves at Aird's Moss in western Scotland. As a result the deal with RSPB the multinational distillery company can continue to burn the deep peat they extract and use as part of their distilling process. Just one of their distilleries uses around one and a half tonnes of peat every day.

The scale of this largesse is mind numbing. The examples above, and there are many more, amount to £13 million. The HLF stated recently that from 2016-2022 they gave RSPB alone around £27,000,000. But what did we, the people who provided the money, get in return, more birds? They hardly get a mention, apart from the refrain that if they don't get the money the birds have had it. We did get some dead stoats and nice, new toilets at South Stack, but you will have to pay RSPB to park if you want to use them.

But surely someone in government audits all this, and checks on old fashioned stuff like value for money, and that what the money was given for actually occurred? Sadly it seems not.

But that is precisely what should be happening. This is public money, one way or another, and it is when these deals are done between the cosy conservation industry that the checks are most needed. Let us take for example the idea that underpins nearly all these grants and payments, that these giant organisations need public money to do what needs to be done.

Remember the funding gaps referred to by the Welsh government, the need for extra money to open cafes and gift shops post Covid, or the Peak District, where we are told, 'the resources required are beyond the means of partners'. Or in Orkney, 'more resources than each organisation has available'. Or the desperate need for HLF investment to save the ecosystems on SevernTrent/RSPB Lake Vyrnwy. Or the RSPB's needing money to conserve its own moorland in Scotland so desperately that it has to get it by doing a lucrative deal with real peat burners.

Let us look at the organisations that have funding gaps and who can't do what they say is vital unless they get public money - something the people actually dishing out the money, apparently couldn't be bothered to do.

Let us start with the RSPB, the biggest wildlife conservation player. Almost penniless, riddled with funding gaps in Wales, can't afford to repair toilets on Anglesey, or kill stoats in Orkney or do public engagement in the Peak District. Total income last year £146 million. Profit, what they call a surplus, over £24 million. Total funds £236 million. Yet they have funding gaps in Wales?

Then let us try the National Trust. Needing cash from Welsh taxpayers to reopen their own facilities for business. Completely unable to deliver what they said was a vital public engagement project in the Peak District because it required, 'more resources than they had available'. In the year to February 2022 their total income was only £643 million and their surplus, including investment income, was £140,000,000.

Finally, good old SevernTrent, who, albeit acting under the advice of RSPB, have apparently, according to the application to HLF, done next nothing, apart from watch Vyrnwy deteriorate until RSPB could say that it would need grants approaching £6 million, to stop the last curlew disappearing and the rare and precious moorland turning into a mass of mature alien conifers. Their last accounts show an income of £1,943,300,000. There is no decimal point in there, it is really a ten-figure number. Just shy of £2 billion. Their before tax profit was £506,200,000. Still no decimal points. That is a nine-figure number. Over half a billion pounds.

Can we all agree something that is blindingly obvious; none of these organisations can fairly state that they cannot afford to do the things they said they wanted the grants for.

It is ludicrous to suggest that RSPB and SevernTrent could not afford to keep their Lake Vyrnwy Estate in a condition that meets their responsibilities as custodians of what they say is precious, heavily designated and in imminent risk of catastrophic loss.

It ridiculous to pretend that the National Trust lack the resources to run Upland Skies, when they made a profit of £140,000,000.

Can any numerate adult really believe that RSPB could not afford to kill stoats on Orkney, often on its own land, without huge EU and HLF grants?

Yet, not only do the regulators not appear to notice what a child would spot, they actually join in. It was the Welsh government that gave the RSPB/SevernTrent £10,000 to write an application to HLF for £3.3 million. It was SNH that gave them £64,000 to write the application to the EU for millions to kill stoats on Orkney and it was they who confirmed, in the HLF application, that RSPB could not afford to run the project themselves.

The management of public finances is based on the assumption that the people who handle public money will be completely impartial and rigorous in testing the veracity of the claims made by applicants and the value for money delivery of what public money is allocated for.

They are our guardians and their independent scrutiny is a vital part of our system. Is it not time that some of them started to ask the questions that any reasonable person would think?


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