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
  • Migrants on my mind (3): guest blog from Grahame Madge

    Tonight, my colleague, Grahame Madge, has written a blog about the massacre on Malta informed, in part, by his own personal experiences.  

    “Absolutely insane!” That was the reaction from Chris Packham earlier today when I spoke to him after he saw Maltese hunters last night trying to stalk and shoot a group of Montagu’s harriers by torchlight, as the birds were trying to roost.

    In two words, he’s summed up the situation perfectly. It does indeed seem insane to try to shoot as many birds from the skies as possible. Malta is one of the Mediterranean’s key bird migration hotspots as each spring millions of birds pour into Europe from Africa. Storks, herons, flamingoes, birds of prey, spoonbills, bee-eaters, stilts, rollers and even songbirds are all considered ‘fair game’ by many of the islands’ hunters.

    A sign of the times: Hunters leave a threatening reminder to BirdLife Malta 

    The RSPB’s Vice President is visiting the islands in a private capacity, drawing international attention to the illegal killing of birds, which brings shame on a wonderful group of islands and prompts outrage from citizens across Europe.

    “They tried to shoot a roller yesterday,” he said disbelievingly, “but, fortunately that one got away.” I’m familiar with Chris, as a confident Springwatch presenter, enthusing about wildlife, but as we spoke I could hear in his voice that witnessing several days of hunters slaughtering birds was beginning to take its toll. Read more about Chris Packham’s Malta visit here

    Malta can have that affect on the toughest of people. I visited the islands several years ago but my memories are still vivid.  They say that smells transport you back to a place, and I can still remember the stench of death in my nostrils after looking at corpse after corpse of protected species, gunned down as they tried to fly over this Mediterranean idyll.  I was part of a regular contingent of RSPB staff who visit the islands helping our partner – BirdLife Malta – build their capacity to help fight the threat that illegal hunting poses to Europe’s migratory birds. We currently have staff taking their annual leave on the islands to help our partner.

    A fatally-wounded honey buzzard, illegally shot by hunters. Photo: Grahame Madge 

    I have worked for the RSPB for almost two decades, and in that time the issue of Maltese hunting has always been in my work programme, and, I’m keen that it’s resolved before I retire.

    In 2004, our hopes were lifted when Malta joined the European Union. At last, thanks to strong and internationally-revered bird-protection laws, there was a way of drawing the illegal killing to a close. However, 10 years later, the issue is still present as the islands’ hunters wield their political clout to lobby the Maltese Government to amend laws, trying to over-rule their international obligations. What the islands’ hunters can’t achieve through amending legislation, they will achieve through other means: bullying; intimidation and law-breaking, principally.

    Sometimes global problems seem intractable, and finding a solution to illegal bird killing across the Mediterranean is elusive. However, there are powerful allies. In polls, the vast majority of Maltese residents are also against illegal hunting and they are becoming more vocal. Staggeringly, around one in 10 of Maltese residents have signed a petition calling for a referendum where they will be able to vote to end spring hunting once and for all. Malta has pleaded with the European Union for a derogation from European law to allow the spring hunting of turtle dove. The cover of spring hunting provides a smokescreen for hunters to target other protected bird species, such as cuckoo and birds of prey. Our hard-working partner is striving to ensure the referendum takes place. Find out more about their work here

    Volunteers with BirdLife Malta mount a dawn patrol, monitoring the activities of hunters. Photo: Grahame Madge 

    The turtle dove is one of Europe’s fastest declining birds and although the reasons for its haemorrhaging population are not yet fully understood, it’s thought to be related to changing land use across parts its European breeding range. The hunters claim a right to shoot turtle doves because they’re not fully responsible for the decline, however, in a further act of insanity, they don’t recognise that taking thousands of birds from an already rapidly-declining population has anything to do with them.

    The issue of declining migratory birds is one of the greatest crises facing conservationists. There are many reasons for their decline, but hunting declining or protected species is a major threat. Our Birds Without Borders project, which has been supported by Chris Packham, is looking to identify the threats facing migratory birds where they nest, where they migrate through and where they spend the winter. Find out more about the Birds Without Borders project here

  • Migrants on my mind (2)

    I have often wondered what went through the minds of the people of Easter Island that chopped down their last tree.  Were they aware of what they were doing, but powerless to stop themselves?  Their actions "wiped out their forest, drove their plants and animals to extinction, and saw their complex society spiral into chaos and cannibalism" all because of a strange cultural ritual (see here).

    A similar thought occurred to me as I read that hunters in Malta were bemoaning the lack of turtle doves to shoot this season (see here).  They obviously managed to hit at least one as Chris Packham shared an image of an injured bird via twitter today (here).  That'll be another turtle dove that won't make it home.

    Chris is, through his video diary this week, doing a fantastic job at putting a spotlight on the excess of the Maltese spring hunters and it was good to hear him feature on the Today programme and Radio 2 phone-ins (I was travelling!).  Steve Micklewright and his Birdlife Malta colleagues will be delighted by the increased exposure that Chris' visit has generated in the run up to the proposed referendum on hunting.  It will, no doubt, be a boost to volunteers and staff.

    And, when turtle dove is literally in the firing line, it is another timely reminder of the importance of improving the breeding success of our fastest declining species here in the UK (here).  

    Turtle Dove by Andy Hay (

    Photo of a turtle dove: one that got away

    Whether suitable habitat is available for any of our farmland birds depends not just on the good will of farmers but also on the rules and incentives that govern management of our farmland - and that means each of the UK administrations making the best out of the bad Common Agriculture Policy deal that was agreed last year.

    In Northern Ireland, a failure to secure political agreement over funding for agri-environment means that there is now a £100m shortfall which will threaten the long term future of species such as the Irish hare and marsh fritillary butterfly.  The good news is that many farmers are now joining our calls on the NI Assembly to find the funds to continue to support wildlife-friendly farming.  You can read more about what we are doing here.

    In England, the agri-environment budget is settled but more work is being done on the design of the new scheme.  This is the scheme which will could decide the fate of species like turtle dove.  

    But there are other decisions being made by Defra now which could affect our farmed environment and determine how much value we get from public money - such as the new Pillar I ‘greening’ payment which applies to 30% of the total £11,500,000,000 in farming subsidies that will be paid out between now and 2020 in England.  While the rules have been heavily diluted, Defra still does have some licence to do good specifically through their use of Ecological Focus Areas (EFAs) - 5% of land doing good things for the environment.  

    But for this to do any good at all, Defra would have to ignore exemptions that would allow, for example, farmers to count land growing nitrogen-fixing crops such as peas and beans, which offer little for wildlife and also happen to be lucrative crops.  For example, at our farm in Cambridgeshire, our 34ha of combining peas last year would have more than given us our 5% EFA, while also netting us a profit of £684 per ha. So why, you might ask yourself, should we get some of the hard working public’s taxes for our peas, when we’re getting so much from the market?   We want to made to work harder for our money and for wildlife.

    Saving UK wildlife means we need to obsess about the detail of these agreements and fight to get civil servants and politicians to see sense on 'greening' and on funding/designing agri-environment schemes.  

    It also means that we must do all we can to support our Birdlife Partners throughout the flyway of our migrants.  Please do what you can by helping our campaign to influence CAP implementation across the UK, our Birds Beyond Borders project and, of course, keep watching Chris Packham (here) and support the Birdlife Malta campaign to end spring hunting (here).

    Easter Island: let this not be a parable for our time.

  • Migrants on my mind

    I've been thinking about migrants.

    It might have had something to do with bumping into quite a few sand martins, swallows, chiff chaffs and willow warblers while with the family in sunny Northumberland this weekend or...

    ...following Chris Packham's excellent video diary about the continued spring hunting on Malta (here) and supporting the Birdlife Malta fundraising push for a publicity campaign to encourage people to vote 'yes' in a referendum to end the appalling slaughter (here) or...

    ...anticipating the return of cuckoos* courtesy of the BTO's tracking (here) or...

    ...hearing about and signing Chris Rose's petition to urge the BBC to restart the 18 May outdoor broadcast of nightingales (here) or...

    ...receiving reports that 438 people have already to objected to the proposed development by Ministry of Defence at Lodge Hill nightingale SSSI while just 5 have written in support** or...

    ...wondering when the UK Government will end bird trapping on military bases in Cyprus (here) or

    ...reflecting on the prospects for this year's breeding season for our most threatened bird - the turtle dove (here) or

    ...simply because explaining the wonder of migration to my kids still makes their jaws drop.

    Given the parlous state of our migrants and the pressures they face in their breeding grounds, on passage and in their wintering grounds, our Bird without Borders project is probably the RSPB's most important.  You can read more about it and take part here.

    'Our' migrants need all the help they can get.  Please enjoy their return this spring and help them in any way you can.


    *The grapevine tells me that one was seen/heard at the Lodge this weekend.

    **Regular readers of this blog will be aware of the battle of Lodge Hill (see here).  We are calling on Medway Council to refuse outline planning permission, for a development proposal that would constitute one of the largest single losses of SSSI since the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 came in to force. If the Medway Council is minded either to grant permission itself or pass it to the Secretary of State for determination, we strongly support this application to being called-in and determined through the rigour of a public inquiry, given the scale of proposed damage to a nationally important nature conservation site and the implications of this proposal for national planning policy in relation to the protection of SSSIs, our finest wildlife sites.