How is the crisis affecting your organisation, and the sector at large?
Like other large NGOs in the sector, such as the National Trust and the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust, the RSPB has experienced a significant drop in income from visitors during the COVID-19 crisis while people have been unable to travel to our reserves, centres, cafes and shops. In addition, the closure of our 221 nature reserves during the full lockdown perversely led to unwelcome additional costs due to anti-social behaviour while staff and volunteers were absent. We’ve also been unable to recruit new members face-to-face, and although our online membership recruitment has doubled, we are 50% below the membership recruitment numbers we would have expected to have in 2020.
The greatest costs to the organisation, though, were incurred through the postponement of two large-scale island eradication projects, one on Orkney and one on Gough Island (a UK Overseas Territory in the South Atlantic). We have long planned these major, urgent operations on both islands in order to protect and restore sea bird populations from predation by non-native species, but due to the lockdown we have had to put both on hold. That has left us with additional costs running into the millions for their future delivery – in the case of Gough, to rehire vessels from South Africa, bring in experts from all around the world and repurchase materials for the operation.
What opportunities are you seeing and seizing?
The lockdown has given us an amazing opportunity to engage with the public on nature in their gardens and local areas. Our online RSPB Breakfast Birdwatch has been incredibly popular, with more than 25,000 people joining or viewing videos around the special Breakfast Dawn Chorus event in May. Key staff have had the time to concentrate on the launch of our new mobile app, the Swift Mapper, developed in conjunction with Natural Apptitude. The Mapper allows members of the public to log their sightings of low-flying swift colonies and nests through their mobile phones as well as via the RSPB website. This kind of initiative, and the promotion of other digital-option offerings, such as Wild Challenge, have been key to encouraging more people to connect with nature and enjoy its benefits.
Interest in nature and wildlife gardening has also provoked fresh enquiries from potential new corporate partners who would like to do more in this space. Our challenge is to build on that engagement and move people to play a role in addressing the climate and ecological crises. Perhaps because of people’s increased awareness about the value of nature during the lockdown, our campaign communications have also gained more resonance recently, particularly when covering threats to cherished natural spaces such as from the proposed new nuclear site beside RSPB Minsmere.
As for the environment sector at large, it’s been entirely right that the Government should have focused on getting individuals and businesses back on their feet, and funders focused on civil society organisations that are supporting those most impacted by the COVID-19 crisis, particularly in the short term. Nevertheless, the lockdown has demonstrated how vital green spaces are for people’s physical and mental health, particularly in urban areas. It’s therefore an apt time for our sector as a whole to make the case for the much greater long-term support we will need, both to ensure the health and vitality of our precious green spaces, and also to restore key habitats at scale, such as peatlands and wetlands – for the climate, for nature and for people. We have worked with others across the sector to lead the call for a ‘green recovery’ from the crisis in all four countries of the UK, and working with BirdLife International, we are calling for a healthy natural environment to be a fundamental human right.
What are the challenges?
The challenges remain as great and as urgent as ever. Our natural heritage in the UK and globally is being degraded and lost at an ever-increasing rate, just at the moment when it could also provide natural climate solutions, such as improving carbon storage or helping to manage flood risk. This is also at a time when funding to save the natural world has been in steep decline and continues to be dwarfed by spending on other sectors. In the UK, the State spent £39.5 billion on defence in 2019-20 but only £1.9 billion on the Environment, Food & Rural Affairs portfolio.
Post-COVID-19, the dearth of funding for environmental work could become even worse, as funds are suspended or directed elsewhere. Income and investments from non-government funders have also been affected by the crisis, which may lead to a lower level of funding commitment to the environment, particularly where social investment streams are part of a funder’s mix.
What do you want funders to know and do?
For many years now, we have understood that access to green spaces underpins people’s health and wellbeing. Pilot projects have successfully demonstrated the effects of green prescribing and time spent in nature on reducing stress and anxiety. Nevertheless, many funders who have traditionally focused on other sectors, such as education, health and social welfare, have been slow to support the environment sector. It would be good to understand what evidence new funders would need to persuade them that their support can make a significant impact to people as well as nature.
In the same vein, it has been hard to find funding for certain key modes of work in the environment sector, such as research, communications, campaigning and policy work. All these areas are fundamental in helping to inform society as a whole, and policy-makers in particular, about the importance of protecting nature and the environment.
A range of voices are certainly becoming louder about the need for the world’s economies to incorporate a green recovery as part of any post-COVID-19 rebuilding. But the outcome of such vocalism is by no means certain, particularly when the financial weight of vested interests remains so powerful. New funding and new funders are needed to support mass movement-building and policy work, which will be key in helping to tip the balance in favour of the environment and the implementation of powerful green new deals.
The pot of funding available for natural capital solutions remains tiny in comparison to what’s needed. Collaborations with new funders and support for progressive investment vehicles will be essential to growing the resources available for a green economic recovery post-COVID-19, and increasing the number of practical projects working to help solve and mitigate the climate and ecological crisis.
Beccy Speight is Chief Executive of RSPB. Previously, Beccy led the Woodland Trust after working for the National Trust for 14 years, initially as the general manager of the Stourhead Estate, then as the director for its East Midlands and Midlands regions from 2005. Prior to joining the National Trust, Beccy worked in local government in Scotland and was a company director at management consultants Smythe Dorward Lambert.