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The willingness of government to give money to RSPB on request is starting to raise questions

Regular readers may be growing tired of the RSPB's Lake Vyrnwy, but it is the only RSPB reserve where we have, by chance, an insight to how bad it can get and the strange twists and turns of the RSPB's relationships with third parties.

It all began with the discovery of an application form to the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) for £3.3 million. In the application form, which the Welsh government had given RSPB £10,000 to fill in, they made some very frank statements about the parlous state the place had got into under their management. These include the following now infamous admission:

“Without the serious interventions RSPB is proposing in this bid, in the next few years curlew, black grouse and merlin will cease to appear as a breeding species in this area of Wales. It is likely that the same fate would fall red grouse and hen harrier within the next decade”.

The application made it clear that to do the work that RSPB wanted to do on the land they managed for SevernTrent Water, the £3.3 million was nowhere near enough. It would need to be match funded by other organisations, charities and individuals, and the total cost would be nearer £6,000,000. Indeed the Welsh government had already budgeted for a gift of £750,000 to RSPB to assist with the matched funding.

It should be borne in mind that the mutually beneficial relationship between SevernTrent and RSPB at Lake Vyrnwy has been going on for over 30 years. When it started there were lots of curlew, (RSPB said so themselves), and the other rare ground nesting birds were not about to disappear in a decade. Had they been, they would now be long gone. No, it is very clear that under SevernTrent's ownership and RSPB's management, not only had the birds gone or nearly so, but the upland habitat itself was in a dreadful and degraded condition. That is what they said in their application. So it must be true.

In the event, the HLF got cold feet, and RSPB/SevernTrent did not get the money. But hope springs eternal, and the RSPB does not take no for an answer easily. So they came calling again this time for a smaller amount – a mere £497,100 – and they got it.

This time they largely avoided saying how badly the birds were doing: once bitten twice shy. Although they did mention that peregrines were down to one nesting pair, because of 'nest site degradation', whatever that is. A remarkable admission for an organisation in control of the nest sites and who makes such a fuss about raptors; but this is not the main point today.

What is of greater specific interest is what the successful application has to say about the Lake Vyrnwy reserve in general, and the insight it provides to the quality of the stewardship of both the RSPB and SevernTrent over the decades they have been in charge. What follows are some extracts from what the RSPB said.

"The last formal condition assessment in 2005 identified Vyrnwy's blanket bog and dry heath as being in 'unfavourable condition'. Blanket bog has been degraded following historic inappropriate management which saw habitat drained for maximum upland stock rates, peat cutting for fuel and afforested with non-native conifers.

"An EU LIFE Project (2006-2011) started to reverse some of these practices but large areas remain at risk. There is an urgent risk of bogs drying out, accelerating erosion, releasing carbon into the atmosphere and threatening the fragile eco-system. Vyrnwy's native woodlands are at great risk from invasive non-native species (INNS) such as rhododendron, laurel, and multiple conifers.

"INNS pose a similar threat in the designated moorland (dry heath and blanket bog) where self-seeded conifers and rhododendrons have matured and threaten to out-compete native species. On the Berwyn Mountain moorland 44% of heather dominated vegetation was lost between 1946-1984. Lake Vyrnwy has the largest block of the area's heather moorland left under single ownership; without urgent intervention more of this limited habitat will be lost.

"Priority species are at further risk from predation, scrub encroachment and lack of landscape scale management that meets their needs. This is particularly the case for the UK BAP curlew and the most southerly UK population of black grouse. Breeding pairs of peregrines have dwindled to just one as breeding site conditions have degraded."

Elsewhere in the document we read that

"The uplands at Lake Vyrnwy are part of the largest area of blanket bog and dry heath in Wales, and further that, 'The Berwyns are the most important uplands in Wales for breeding birds supporting a wide range of species in internationally significant numbers'."

There is lots more of this. The application goes on and on about how important the site is, how terrible is its state, and how desperate it is that urgent action is taken. We could have taken dozens of similar quotes but they would be repetitive. Let us instead consider what conclusions we can draw.

First, we can all agree that as far as birds are concerned things are not bad: they are catastrophic. We read that the Berwyns are the most important Welsh site for rare ground nesting birds, but on this part of the Berwyns – the part managed by RSPB and owned by Severn Trent – we also know, because RSPB has told us, that peregrines, curlew, black grouse and merlin are bordering on extinct and red grouse and hen harrier are likely to follow.

The application says that, "The Berwyns are the most important uplands in Wales for breeding birds”. Yes, but which ones are actually breeding and fledging chicks in sustainable numbers on the 10,000 hectares managed by RSPB? On the basis of their own statements it's not black grouse, red grouse, merlin, peregrine, hen harrier or curlew. That doesn't leave a lot. With so few left, which ones are doing well?

Second, both applications make it very clear that the habitat, managed by RSPB for decades, and owned for longer by SevernTrent (now via their subsidiary HafrenDyfrdwy), is in a terrible state. The bogs and dry heath are leaking carbon, breaking down and eroding and have been for years. CO2 is being emitted in vast quantities, and exotic trees have been invading the moorland for so long that they are 'maturing'.

Faced with this chronicle of impending cataclysm, who could blame the HLF for giving RSPB and SevernTrent (HafrenDyfwdwy) nearly half a million pounds to put things right?

Well, we can, and indeed, we think everyone should. Why give scarce resources that could be used by organisations desperately short of money, to these two?

Let us consider how we got into this position. The owners and RSPB have been in charge for decades. That is decades during which they have watched things get worse and worse. Decades during which habitat has degraded, carbon has been released, peat has washed away, rare birds have disappeared. They were not unaware of these calamitous circumstances. They have been told by independent assessors and repeatedly used the awful conditions to get grants. They knew alright.

So why didn't they do anything? The RSPB has previous in watching things get worse and then using the impending catastrophe to get large amounts of money. They watched the stoats on Orkney get worse for a decade before extracting at least £11,000,000 from the EU, HLF and others, despite the fact that they had the resources to sort the problem in their own reserves all along.

But this is worse; far worse. Remember the land where this environmental catastrophe has been occurring belonged to SevernTrent. We see the RSPB as rich, but its annual income is 'only' £151,000.000 and its operating surplus is 'only' £15,000,000. Enough to sort Vyrnwy's problems out of course. But what about the actual owners? When all this was going on Severn Trent owned it and they make RSPB's vast income look like a church collection. Last year SevernTrent had revenues of £1,943,300,000, and a before-tax profit of £506,200,000. To be clear, that is revenues of nearly 2 billion pounds and a profit before tax of over half a billion.

An immensely rich public utility and, by the standards of the conservation industry, the equivalently wealthy RSPB could not, for over thirty years, find the money to stop the wholesale degradation of what they say is one of the most important sites in Wales. This is despite the facts that one of them owns it and the other manages it.

In the decades they have been in charge, the RSPB has been sponging money off the Welsh government, HLF, and anyone else dim enough not to spot they were being taken for a ride. Getting money to recover degrading habitat that it was the responsibility of the owners to keep in the condition required by its designation. Otherwise, without the external funding, both the owner and RSPB were apparently prepared to watch it deteriorate, rather than use a tiny fraction of their own resources to do what they knew needed to be done.

Is it any wonder that RSPB has some very good friends in the corporate sector? Years of mismanagement that could have resulted in goodness knows what trouble, turned, by the RSPB, into a source of revenue. What's not to like? Incompetence brings its own reward.

So where are we? Well, we now understand that the rich RSPB procured money from the HLF to repair damage to a heavily designated site they manage on behalf of an immensely rich public utility company. They came close to getting £3.3 million from HLF and £750,000 from the Welsh government on a previous occasion, but this time got nearly half a million. It is not yet clear whether the Welsh government will be joining in.

That will itself be interesting. The willingness of the government and/or its civil servants (it is not yet clear which) to give money to RSPB almost on request is starting to raise questions about what is going on. The recent discovery that they gave RSPB money to fill 'funding gaps' in some of their reserve budgets, when, with a profit of £15 million pounds, it was not possible to see how there could be funding gaps that weren't 'created' in the hope of attracting public money obviously raises all sorts of questions. Especially in light of the Auditor General for Wales 2020 report, which was very critical of this sort of lax behaviour.

Just ask yourself: if this land was owned by a group of independent landowners and farmers, what would RSPB be saying about them and the state of their land? What are the chances that the HLF and the Welsh government would be funding the farmers to repair the damage? What do you think? I'll tell you what I think the answers are. RSPB would by going frantic and funders would be nowhere to be seen.


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