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
  • Protecting the best... from fracking

    I started the year (here) focusing on the need to protect our finest wildlife sites - whether locally, nationally or internationally significant. For the Government to have a chance of realising its ambition to be the first generation to pass on the natural environment in an enhanced state to the next, it must improve protection and management of our jewels in the crown - just 35% of SSSIs, for example, are currently in favourable condition.

    So when I woke this morning to hear that fracking might be excluded from protected areas, I thought that this was good news.

    Earlier this year, the RSPB, the National Trust and other countryside conservation groups published a major review of the risks fracking could pose to the natural environment in the UK. Alongside this report, we put forward ten recommendations that would strengthen how this industry is regulated and would go some way to addressing these risks. Our headline recommendation was to create shale gas exclusion zones that include National Parks, Areas of Natural Beauty (AONBs) and sites protected at the national and European level for wildlife.

    As the details of today's announcement have been released (here), it has become clear that National Parks and AONBs were still to be made available for shale gas licensing, but a fracking development would only take place within them if it can be shown to be ‘exceptional circumstances’.   It seems that the Secretary of State will call in any challenge to such a decision to ensure this is implemented.

    This is not the absolute protection that we hoped for. It is, however, an important and welcome step forward for two reasons. First, it sends a clear signal to planners that they should reject applications for any fracking related developments within these sites. Second, it endorses the concept that some places are not appropriate for fracking.

    Yet, surely wildlife sites should also be added to the list. Why add to the pressures that these sites already face?

    Through the course of the day, it was good to see others pick up this issue, such as Natalie Bennett, who asks here whether this principle should be applied to places important for people too.

    The partner organisations behind the ‘Are we fit to frack?’ reports today issued a response the announcement noting that whilst it is a positive development it must be built upon if we are to keep special places special.  This response is shown below.

    Let me know what you think about today's announcement on fracking.

    It would be great to hear your views.

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    New onshore licensing round opens – Joint response

    The Angling Trust, National Trust, RSPB, the Salmon and Trout Association, The Wildlife Trusts and the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust  earlier this year published a major review of the risks that shale gas extraction (‘fracking’) could pose in the UK and put forward ten recommendations to address these risks.

    Our review concluded that fracking poses a range of significant risks to the natural environment. Given these risks, and the high level of uncertainty about them, we called for special areas that are particularly sensitive to be protected outright from development. This would best be achieved by not licensing or permitting shale gas extraction, or exploration activity in these areas in the first place. Removing these sensitive areas from the area that was being considered for the 14th licensing round would reduce the total area being offered for licence by just 12%.

    We welcome Government’s announcement that National Parks and Areas of Natural Beauty will be afforded special protection and fracking developments will only be allowed within them under ‘exceptional circumstances’.

    Whilst this reflects existing planning policy, confirmation that fracking will be seen as a major development and will therefore have to pass this test is a useful step in the right direction. Critically, this is also the first time that Government have recognised the need for special places to be protected from fracking. There are, however, two fundamental problems with this approach that need addressing.

    Firstly, various tests already exist in the planning system that will apply to developments in areas designated as special for one reason or the other. It’s unclear at this stage requiring fracking to pass an ‘exceptional circumstances’ test will add to these existing safeguards or indeed what is meant by ‘exceptional’.

    We are therefore concerned that this ambiguity will only be resolved when a developer attempts to challenge these rules through the planning system. This uncertainty is exactly the scenario that the industry, the public and conservationists want to avoid, and that could be dispelled through simply not licensing these areas and thereby establishing exclusion zones.

    Secondly, wildlife sites, including Special Protection Areas, Special Areas for Conservation and Sites of Scientific Interest as well as nature reserves and Local Wildlife Sites, have been excluded from the new safeguards. This is a missed opportunity to ensure that these sites, which are highly sensitive and are of great natural value, are properly protected from the outset. We strongly urge Government to review this decision.

    In our report, Are we fit to frack?, we put forward a number of other recommendations that dealt with how the fracking industry is regulated. These include, for example, requiring all applications for fracking developments to do a statutory environmental impact assessment, and independent monitoring of key environmental risks such as methane leakage. Many of these recommendations have not yet been addressed and with the 14th licensing round taking place this year they are becoming ever more urgent.

    We now urge the look forward to working with Government to make further progress in these areas. 

  • The RSPB welcomes M&S’s decision not to stock red grouse this year

    The last few weeks has seen an intense focus on the uplands, especially in England. Central to this has been a growing and extremely welcome chorus to see the return of hen harriers to the rightful place as a breeding bird of our hills – the shockwaves of the last year’s failure to see any hen harrier nest successfully in England have, at long last, built a momentum for change.

    In parallel the future of the English uplands, as a whole, is starting to get the attention it deserves. The common thread through this is the growing impact the driven (red) grouse shooting industry is having as some intensify the management of the uplands.

    Raising the issues is one thing – the key question is what happens next? Let’s be under no illusion, the growing recognition that the absence of hen harriers and the wider environmental implications of the grouse industry is prompting strong reactions as calls for bans and boycotts grow.

    I’ll be clear – the RSPB is not in that position, we want change and we want a positive reaction from the moorland landowners and managers.

    That’s why we welcome today’s announcement by M&S that they are not going to stock red grouse until there is a code of practice in place and we welcome the opportunity to work with M&S and the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust to move this forward.

    This also exactly the same thinking behind our call for licensing of upland driven grouse shooting in England. Developed co-operatively, such a proposal builds confidence and provides a real route out of adversarial dialogue that has, for too long, characterised these issues.

  • What the RSPB thinks about the proposed Defra Hen Harrier Action Plan

    It's good to see (here) the shooting community supporting the need for a recovery plan for the hen harrier in England - this is a positive step forward. 

    As I have written previously (for example, see here), we want a world richer in nature and we want to see a recovery plan that does what it says on the tin, i.e. it secures recovery for the hen harrier in England.  This is something to which the UK Government is committed to through its Biodiversity 2020 Strategy and for which it has legal obligations under the EU Birds Directive.

    A target-led approach to species recovery which focuses on tackling the key threats has long been a theme of nature conservation and, indeed, was the basis of the UK Biodiversity Action Plan established in 1994 by the then Environment Secretary, John Gummer, now Lord Deben.

    In our discussions with Defra, we have sought to ensure that the developing plan focuses attention on the right issues, especially tackling the root causes of decline. In the case of the hen harrier, the key threat constraining recovery is illegal persecution.

    There has been some debate about the relative merits of a so-called brood management scheme (BMS) whereby hen harrier chicks would be removed from a moor when a threshold of birds was reached to remove perceived predation pressure on grouse. 

    This is an idea that emerged a few years ago and which we have given considerable thought – indeed we even wrote an article in the Journal of Applied Ecology on the subject in 2009 (see here). 

    We have concluded that this may merit experimental investigation in England in the future, but only once hen harrier numbers have recovered to a pre-agreed level and less interventionist approaches, particularly diversionary feeding, have been widely attempted.

    It is regarding the conservation target that we and the shooting community differ.  They would like to pilot the BMS now. We think this is not only premature but potentially not compliant with existing legislation.  It would also send a terrible signal to nature conservation that it is appropriate to 'manage' a highly threatened population of an iconic species.

    To survive in the 21st century, driven grouse shooting must be able to demonstrate that it can operate in harmony with healthy populations of birds of prey like the hen harrier and that it can address the other negative environmental impacts associated with grouse moor management (here).  This is why we think it is right and timely to license driven grouse shooting. 

    The conflict between grouse shooting and environment is understandably becoming an increasingly emotive debate and there have, over the past three years, been four separate e-petitions on the Number 10 website about birds of prey and grouse shooting.  Most people want the wildlife in our uplands to flourish and I note the growing support for Hen Harrier day being organised on 10 August.  While I shall be on holiday for the day itself, I shall be there in spirit hoping that it helps put a spotlight on illegal killing. I know many RSPB supporters, staff and volunteers will be attending and adding their support to the call for the end of illegal persecution of the hen harrier.

    In the meantime, we look forward to continuing our work with Defra, the shooting community and others to secure an effective hen harrier recovery plan so that everyone can get behind it soon. It's only by working together that we'll save the hen harrier and we're determined to reach an agreement.