Martin Harper's blog

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Martin Harper's blog

I’ve been the RSPB’s Conservation Director since May 2011. As I settle into the job, I’ll be blogging on all the big conservation topics and providing an inside view of our conservation projects. I hope you enjoy reading it and feel inspired to join in t
  • How are people responding to the state of nature?

    Today is a big day.

    I shall be in London for the Conference for Nature which we have organised, with a range of organisations including the Wildlife Trusts, Butterfly Conservation and Buglife.

    Our State of Nature report published in May 2013 showed that 60% of species (for which we have adequate data) have declined in my lifetime.

    Image from Eleanor Bentnall (in part a celebration of yesterday's announcement about Thames Estuary Airport being kicked in to touch)

    At the time, we challenged all sectors of society to do more for nature.  We wanted...

    ...politicians that have repeatedly committed to recovering threatened wildlife populations to think about the natural world when they make big decisions about where to cut and where to invest

    ...developers to respect and protect the special places that people love

    ...landowners to manage their land with wildlife in mind

    ...businesses to find ways to make a profit without trashing the environment

    ...all of us to do our bit by taking action for wildlife in our gardens and in our communities.

    After an opening address from Sir David Attenborough, we'll hear from representatives from business and civil society about the game-changing interventions they are making to help protect and conserve wildlife.  We'll explore how politicians can make it easier for more people to do the right thing.  And, we'll hear from each of the parties (including the Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg) about their plans to drive nature's recovery. 

    I hope to be surprised, challenged and inspired.

    Tomorrow, I'll let you know what happened.


  • Thames Estuary Airport out

    We have always said that the Thames Estuary is a disastrous place to put an airport. Well, I am delighted to learn this morning that common sense has prevailed: the Airports Commisssion has ruled out this option – I hope once and for all.  

    Following a detailed review of the evidence, including some from the RSPB, the Commission concluded that a Thames Estuary airport will not be on its shortlist of potential aviation expansion sites recommended to Government.  

    You can read the announcement here.

    This is good news indeed. To destroy such an important area for wildlife in order to build an airport would have been an act of environmental vandalism on a massive scale. The tidal mudflats, saltmarsh and reed beds that line the estuary are some of the most import wildlife habitats in Europe, home to a rich ecosystem which includes hundreds of thousands of threatened wintering birds. This area is designated with the highest environmental protection available.

    Independent consultants reporting to the Airports Commission last month confirmed that, “an airport development [in the estuary] is likely to result in large-scale adverse effects on international nature conservation designations” and that even if it were feasible, the costs of wildlife relocation alone may be £2billion. And we know that attempts to relocate the habitat for hundreds of thousands of birds would have been a nonsense on a grand scale. There is nowhere in Europe large enough to accommodate a compensation site which would have needed to be ten times bigger than anything ever attempted before.

    Those of you who remember our major “No airport at Cliffe” campaign a decade or so ago will know that we have been working with the communities in South Essex and North Kent for many years to fight various proposals for airports here.  This morning they will feel relieved, delighted and I hope proud of the campaign that they have run.   They have for over a decade lived the spectre of an airport.  I hope today's announcement signals the end to that threat. No more time and money should wasted in developing proposals for this area.

    While we can celebrate the fact that the Thames Estuary and the wildlife it is home to are safe for now, the battle to curb increases in carbon emissions from airportsis unfortunately  set  to continue. Climate change remains the greatest long term threat to wildlife and we believe there should be no further airports in this country until the Government can demonstrate how they can be built and operated without busting our legally binding climate targets. So this means we will continue to work alongside our NGO colleagues to highlight this issue as the debate around expansion at Heathrow or Gatwick continues.

    But for today, I sincerely hope that the Commission’s announcement draws a line under any more proposals for an airport in the Thames Estuary once and for all.

  • How to prevent Martha's fate becoming an allegory for our times

    Today marks the centenary of the death of Martha, the last American Passenger Pigeon.  My predecessor, Mark Avery, has written an excellent book (here) on the demise of this species and is popping back to the Lodge today to give a talk on the subject.

    Parallels have been drawn between the extinction of this species and the plight of birds such as the turtle dove which has suffered a 74% decline across Europe since 1970 and whose UK population is halving every six years.

    The plight of turtle dove was on my mind while I was on holiday in the Pyrenees.  I was lucky enough to be staying on a farm in Catalonia where there was a small flock of turtle doves.  I think my family and friends grew slightly tired of me getting excited every time another landed to feed in one of the feeds next to our house.  But, knowing Martha's story and the potential implications of what might happen to turtle doves in my life time, can take some of the joy out of the simple wonder of watching a flock of beautiful birds go about their day to day business.

    Andy Hay's wonderful image of two turtle doves: an image that I tried and failed to capture on holiday

    Today is also the start of the new parliamentary year, the last before the general election in May.  Politicians returning from their holidays to Westminster will want to focus on the new legislative agenda but will inevitably have half an eye on the forthcoming election campaign and the pitch that they will make to the electorate through their manifestos. 

    It is not hyperbolic to say that the fate of turtle dove as a breeding species relies on this generation of politicians. 

    We're doing out bit.  We launched Operation Turtle Dove in May 2012 to stop the turtle dove following the same path as the passenger pigeon.  This is a partnership between the RSPB, Conservation Grade, Pensthorpe Conservation Trust and Natural England.  Together, we are identifying the primary causes of the decline through research right across their long migration. We then develop urgent practical solutions – such as advising farmers how they can provide food for turtle doves on their land or campaigning to stop spring hunting in the Med.

    But we also need politicians to do what only they can do.  This is why we spend so much time trying to influence them to adapt policy and legislation to benefit nature.  There is another example of this today as alongside Green Alliance and six other environmental NGOs, we’ve published Greener Britain (here), our challenge and our offer to all political parties to make the natural environment a part of their big ideas for that next election and part of their plan for realising them.

    We've set out seven steps for delivering on the big ideas including a Nature and Well-being Act, setting out the long term plan for nature’s recovery and recognising its fundamental importance to our economy, sense of place and well-being. The group is also calling for a mega marine sanctuary, ranging from the tropics to the Southern Ocean, including Ascension Island—our vital home for biodiversity in the Overseas Territories. These ideas fit neatly with a set of proposals for decarbonisation, better resource use, and rewards for local environmental action, which together add up to a comprehensive manifesto for a greener Britain.

    When it comes to saving nature, everyone has a role to play.  That is why, on Wednesday this week with others, we have organised a conference to showcase the game changing interventions that businesses are making to address the state of nature.  Business leaders will mingle with politicians and environmental NGOs with the hope that this will galvanise politicians to take the necessary steps to make it easier for others to do great things for nature.

    Whether our efforts are sufficient will inevitably to be scrutinised by the next generation of environmentalists who are gathering for their "A Focus on Nature" conference on Friday.  I'll be there and am looking forward to hear how satisfied they are with the work we are doing to safeguard the heritage that they will inherit from us.  I have a feeling I know what they will say. 

    So, it's a big week and the start of an important year.  But our test is to ensure that the fortunes of species like turtle dove improve and Martha's fate does not become an allegory of our times.