Martin Harper's blog

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Our work
You might be surprised to read that our work is far broader than nature reserves and Big Garden Birdwatch. Read more about what else we do.

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
  • Nature and wellbeing by numbers

    There is a slight sense of irony when spending a couple of sunny days indoors talking about the benefits of contact with nature. But there were a few gulls outside the conference centre in Bristol and I saw a three red kites on the train, so I just about managed get my daily dose of nature.

    That said, the organisers (from the Wildlife Trusts, National Trust and the RSPB) did a great job in ensuring the two-day Nature and Wellbeing summit was informative and fun. We spent a day creating a recipe for successful landscape-scale conservation (primarily for nature but also for people) followed by a day exploring how to maximise the health  benefits of contact with nature (primarily for people but also for nature).

    Outputs will emerge in due course, but, for those of you who were unable to attend, I've cobbled together a stream of consciousness based on the excellent contributions over the two days from Professor Sir John Lawton, Teresa Pinto-Correia, Richard Louv, Associate Professor Marcus Grant, Dr William Bird, Stephen Moss, Miranda Krestovnikoff and from the c200 people from the nature conservation, heritage and health sectors with collectively c3,000 years of experience.

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    Nature’s in trouble

    60% of UK species for which we have data have declined in my lifetime and there are 421m fewer birds in Europe today than there were 30 years ago.

    There is growing consensus that we want to recover nature in a generation, say 25 years.

    And science tells us we need more, bigger, better, connected landscapes (Aichi target 11 obliges up to 17% of land).

    Size matters. The world’s largest wildest places are some of the most important places for wildlife (eg Okavango Delta and Yellowstone National Park). The 2,000km2 of accidental wilderness created by the Chernobyl disaster is hooching with wildlife including c150 wolves.

    To put this in context, our largest rewildling project in England - Ennerdale - is 47km2.

    We are making progress through Living Landscapes, Futrescapes and Nature Improvement Areas. But, we should be raising our sights.  Within Europe, our Natura 2000 network covers 787, 678 km2 area but just 13% is wild. As John Lawton said, imagine if we did more to join up some of these sites?

    We can and do want to work together to do more and, based on our collective experience, we have developed a recipe for success to make it happen.  Watch this space.

    Humans are in trouble

    By 2020, it is estimated that chronic/non-communicable disease (depression, cancer, cardiovascular, diabetes, dementia etc.) will account for 73% of all deaths (see here). 

    A chronic state of stress can be the root cause of these chronic diseases.

    Our species were designed to be outdoors and there is growing evidence of how detachment from nature can cause stress and contact with nature can reduce levels of stress.

    Few children ever play in natural environment and some children in the US spend over 50 hours in front of electronic devices. And more than 50% of the world’s population now lives in cities. We need to make it easy for people to experience nature either by helping them to have access to the countryside (exemplified by President Obama’s commitment to ensure all students in the fourth grade visit US National Parks) or we create ‘biophilic’ cities for people and nature.

    Here’s an idea of how you could do it.

    If you want more green infrastructure, you either design it in to new communities (eg what Barratt are planning to do at Kingsbrook in Aylesbury) or you retrofit it.

    Retrofitting is expensive – so where does the money come from?

    Well, the health budget is massive and there is growing evidence to show that contact with nature improves our wellbeing thereby saving money from the health service. Perhaps we could think of redirecting some of the spend to encourage more people to have contact with nature.

    For example, the recently merged Manchester Health and Wellbeing Budget is c£6 billion. Imagine if 1% of this was set aside for green infrastructure as a pilot to test whether this could improve the health and wellbeing of Mancunians and thereby demonstrate that green infrastructure was an investment not a cost.

    If proven, imagine rolling this out this 1% concept across the country. With a total health budget of over £100 billion, this approach could realise £1billion for green infrastructure and transform our towns and cities providing everyone with the opportunity of a daily dose of nature.

    And there were many more ideas like this one!

    Making it happen

    Creating more space for nature and encouraging human connection with nature is a major societal challenge requiring change in land-use, health care provision, planning, education and economics.   We need a step change in thinking and approach. A Nature and Wellbeing Act could be just the catalyst we need.

  • On leadership

    I have been a little distracted by what’s going on down under recently. The performance of the English cricket team at the World Cup has brought little cheer and the national soul-searching about how we can have greater impact in one-day tournaments has started. In fact, it started before the tournament began when there was a debate about who should lead the team – Alastair Cook eventually giving way to Eoin Morgan.

    It is wrong to pin the blame for lack of success on any one person, but our sporting leaders do have a key role in making the most of the talent around them. The greatest English cricket captain, Mike Brearley, was reputed to have “a degree in people”. Brearley’s stats as batsman were poor. Yet, the English selectors recognised that they needed someone to get the best from their players and that’s why they plumped for Brearley.

    It worked.

    He mastered the art of captaincy – the title of his brilliant book - most memorably when he brought out the best from Ian Botham (yes, I can still recall his heroic cricketing deeds with fondness) and Bob Willis during the 1981 Ashes series but also during his time as the leader of the successful Middlesex team of the late 1970s and early 1980s.

    His success was built on meticulous preparation, an instinctive understanding of what makes people tick, innovation and excellent decision-making.

    I say all of this to make a few simple observations about the type of leadership we need today.

    In all walks of life, we need leaders with the energy to engage people and align them behind a common purpose; leaders with the capability to make sense of complexity; leaders that are honest about the challenges and choices we face and leaders that offer clear direction by articulating a compelling view of how things can get better.

    This is particularly true when it comes to the messy business of running the country.

    With less than ten weeks before the general election, the pressure on our political leaders is growing. While polls suggest we should expect another hung parliament, political chat focuses on who will do deals with their political rivals in order to form a stable government.

    Our political system puts our leaders under huge pressure – asked to lead long, exhausting election campaigns, coping with the 24/7 demands of the media, and then, if successful, to hit the ground running, to form a government and then to deal with whatever domestic or foreign crisis that crops up.

    Following the intensity of the election (and any coalition talks that follow), we need our leaders to be at their best: to maintain focus on they will work together to make things better and, for many of us, that includes a desire to grow our prosperity without trashing the planet.

    We live in a period of huge turbulence and I argue that our political leaders need support rather than derision. Smart leaders recognise their own limitations and seek help in terms of ideas and practical solutions to wicked problems such stopping climate chaos and the ongoing degradation of the natural environment.

    That is why we need those outside government to play leadership roles for our core interest of saving nature.  We need businesses (like Marks & Spencer or Cemex) that are learning how to make a profit without harming the natural environment, we need land managers that nurture our natural assets while growing food, we need NGOs to leave brands at the door in order to broker lasting landscape-scale partnerships and we need individuals prepared to work with others to make things better in their communities.

    Tomorrow, I am heading off to Bristol to participate in a two-day conference we have organised, with others (see here).  The first day is an opportunity to showcase the best in landscape-scale conservation.   I hope and expect to hear how great leadership is transforming landscapes for people and wildlife.  We’ll hear about progress with RSPB Futurescapes, the Wildlife Trusts' Living Landscapes and the Defra funded Nature improvement Areas. We plan to learn from experience and come up with a recipe for future success. Our aim is to offer a gauntlet to the next generation of political leaders to make it is easy for all of us to build on these achievements.

    With luck, I may even spot the next generation of Mike Brearleys to take nature conservation forward in the 21st century.

    What sort of leadership do you think we need for 21st Century conservation? And who is your role model?

    It would be great to hear your views.

  • Energy revolution in harmony with nature?

    All of you that have been showing the love this month (here) will know that 2015 is an important year for the future of our climate. During the final throes of the year, world governments meeting in Paris for international climate negotiations have important decisions to deliver a fair, ambitious and binding climate change deal that ensures we, collectively, keep global temperature within safe limits. Of course, we can’t leave the future of the planet to all those pre-Christmas discussions and there are commitments which must be honoured now - especially to ensure we keep on track to meet our renewable energy targets and to continue the move towards low carbon economy.

    Yesterday's announcement (here) about which renewable energy schemes have been awarded Government backing is an important contribution to reducing carbon emissions. But do these schemes help to maximise the potential contribution, and are the schemes in the right places? Well, no, and... no.

    Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)

    Although the winning schemes will help lower greenhouse gas emissions, we regard the decision-making process that has been used to get us here as fundamentally flawed. The ideal scenario would be a system which maximises the potential of renewable energy with the least damaging environmental footprint. In reality, the current funding system squeezes a limited number of projects into a shrinking pot without sufficient environmental safeguards and without properly assessing the cumulative impacts on our natural environment.

    Two of the schemes are offshore wind energy projects. EA One is off the coast of East Anglia; and Neart na Goaithe is off the Scottish coast.

    Ironically, UK seabirds are among the species most heavily impacted by climate change so far, but offshore windfarms have to be individually and cumulatively assessed for any risks they may pose directly to those same seabirds.

    Kittiwake (Grahame Madge rspb-images.com)

    The RSPB has ongoing concerns about the Neart na Goaithe scheme and we are part way through a judicial review (here), so it’s inappropriate to comment too much here.

    We are increasingly concerned about the combination of pressures on North Sea bird life at present, and in particular impacts on the gannets and kittiwakes of Flamborough Head and Bempton Cliffs Special Protection Area and Sites of Special Scientific Interest due to the combined collision risk resulting from a number of wind farms (both consented and proposed) in this area. As well as EA One, these include the recently consented Dogger Bank Creyke Beck A&B wind farm, the Dogger Bank Teesside A&B Offshore wind farm whose examination has just concluded, and in particular, the recently consented Hornsea One offshore wind farm which is the closest to the Flamborough Head and Bempton Cliff seabird colonies.

    The EA One offshore wind farm on its own would provide a large amount of power for a relatively small level of ecological impact.  However, during the examination of EA One, the RSPB put across its concerns about the combined impacts of this scheme with those other North Sea offshore wind farms on the amazing seabird colonies at Flamborough Head and Bempton Cliffs as these birds can forage for food as far as the East Anglian coast.

    With more North Sea offshore windfarm schemes in the pipeline, the RSPB considers it is vital that whoever forms the next UK Government revisits how it allocates what has become a limited funding pot.  It needs to ensure that the UK maximises its potential for offshore wind energy in ways that don’t harm the environment rather than being focused on cost alone. This will help ensure the highest renewable energy capacity is delivered with the lowest possible impact.

    We need to tackle climate change but we must also halt the decline of seabirds. Politicians must acknowledge and address both these concerns.  So, yes, let's invest in renewable energy including offshore windfarms, but let's also do more to ensure that these developments are sited with the utmost care to avoid further impacts on vulnerable populations of seabirds.