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
  • A day at the JCB world Headquarters for the AGM of the National Gamekeepers' Organisation

    I enjoyed speaking today at the National Gamekeepers' Organisation AGM at the very impressive JCB world headquarters.  

    As expected, we did not agree on everything (for example badgers and hen harriers), but the NGO members present were polite enough to give me a round of applause even if I didn't get the standing ovation afforded to David Bellamy and Robin Page!

    The debate was actually healthy and friendly. It is only through talking that we get to understand each other a bit better and that is a prerequisite to any collaboration. A battle of dogma or a war of words conducted through the media helps no-one.

    As well as discussing our general approach to nature conservation, I covered the science of predation and described how our policy around vertebrate control guided practice on our reserves (as covered in my previous post).

    I ended with a challenge regarding ongoing illegal killing of birds of prey. I showed a map of the number of incidents of illegal killing of birds of prey over the past ten years (c2,500) and a chart that illustrated that 70% of the 160 people convicted of offences related to bird of prey persecution between 1990 to 2012 have said that their profession or interest related to game.

    I argued that every time someone with game interests is convicted of a wildlife crime, whether a member of the NGO or not, it tarnishes the reputation of the whole profession.

    It is in the gamekeepers' interest to have zero tolerance of illegal activity which is why it is right that the NGO has, through its disciplinary procedures, a clear policy on those that are convicted of wildlife crime.

    Every incident of illegal killing and every conviction of someone with game interests, makes collaboration harder.  

    That said, we are reaching out, for example through our Skydancer programme (here), to gamekeeper colleges and offering demonstration days at our reserves, like Geltsdale, to talk about ways of reducing conflict between birds of prey and gamebirds through habitat management and techniques such as diversionary feeding.  

    I ended by saying that I looked forward to the day when I didn't have to stand up at a NGO AGM and show a map of illegal killing, that I don’t hear about the poisoning of nineteen birds of prey in Ross-shire as I did fortnight ago and I no longer get calls from one of our investigators to say that police have just charged someone with game interests for illegal killing.

    Instead I would be talking about how we are working together to save species like lapwing, curlew, black grouse and yes, hen harrier.

    That would be a good day.  

  • The conservationist's dilemma: an update on the science, policy and practice of the impact of predators on wild birds

    Today, I am speaking that the National Gamekeeper's Organisation AGM.

    I was pleased to be invited and it promises to be an interesting meeting.  I expect a bit of reciprocal challenge and, hopefully, a shared desire for collaboration to help wildlife.

    As part of my talk, I shall explain the RSPB's understanding of the impact that predators have on wild birds and our response.  I have previously written about how the RSPB uses the wildlife licensing system to support nature conservation (see here).  What follows is a bit of an update.

    First a bit of context...

    The NGO's AGM coincides with the breeding season and the RSPB is, of course, passionate about increasing the population of threatened species particularly on our 215 reserves across 151,197ha of land.  Dedicated work by a large team of staff and volunteers goes into creating just the right habitat to support priority birds (alongside the other 15,000 species that we are lucky enough to be responsible for on our estate).   As well as getting the habitat structure and the food supply right, we also have to ensure the birds are productive, raising a good number of chicks.

    The great conservationist's dilemma comes about when one species (usually a predator) threatens the population of another.  The big question that we have to address, particularly on our own land, is what do we then do about it?

    We have invested considerable research into the role of predators. This has included a review of the evidence of the impacts of predation on wild birds which concluded that...

    ...generalist ground predators,such as foxes, can sometimes reduce the population levels of their prey, and that this is a growing worry if we are to conserve populations of threatened ground-nesting birds, for example lapwings

    ...the evidence to implicate predators such as sparrowhawks in the declines of songbirds is very weak. 

    A more recent (as yet unpublished) review confirms these findings. 

    We have also done considerable work on the impacts of predation on breeding productivity of lapwings on lowland wet grasslands.  The research on lapwings has shown that, at the majority of sites studied, foxes are by far the most important predator of their nests. We have subsequently developed and installed predator-exclusion fences at suitable sites to help protect nesting waders against foxes (and also badgers at some sites). We now have predator-exclusion fences at 14 lowland wet grassland reserves.

    Waders at Ham Wall, RSPB nature reserve (David Kjaer, rspb-images.com) 

    Estimates suggest that lapwings need to fledge between about 0.6 and 0.8 young per pair to maintain a stable population. In 2013, at our reserves with predator-exclusion fences (such as Rainham Marshes), mean lapwing productivity was 1.05 chicks per pair.   Working with neighbouring land managers to restore habitats at a landscape-scale, we hope that the productive waders from our reserves will help to repopulate the surrounding countryside.

    However, occasionally foxes get inside our fences and at some sites ground-nesting birds are too widespread for fences to be effective.  In these circumstances we have to use lethal control.  These decisions are never taken lightly and are guided by our Council approved policy.

    As I have written previously, vertebrate control on RSPB reserves is only considered where the following four criteria are met:

    • That the seriousness of the problem has been established;
    • That non-lethal measures have been assessed and found not to be practicable;
    • That killing is an effective way of addressing the problem;
    • That killing will not have an adverse impact on the conservation status of the target or other non-target species.

    Below, I summarise numbers of vertebrates killed on RSPB reserves by us and our contractors during 2012/13. I have not included vertebrate control commissioned by third parties as part of existing rights.

    As these tables show, there are four main situations where the above criteria are met. These are to:

    • Increase breeding productivity of ground-nesting birds (mainly waders), principally by controlling foxes;
    • Reduce numbers of deer where they are having a detrimental impact on the vegetation, especially by overgrazing the ground flora in woodlands and preventing tree regeneration.  Often deer management is undertaken to prevent damage or aid recovery of nationally important wildlife sites;
    • Protect nesting seabirds;
    • Benefit water voles by killing non-native mink.

    We continue to wrestle with the conservationists dilemma, but are guided by the needs of threatened species, science and our policy.

    I look forward to hearing, amongst other things, the response from the gamekeepers to our approach.  Tomorrow, I shall let you know how it went.

  • A minute’s not-so-quiet reflection: Guest blog from Conor Jameson on the 50th anniversary of the death of Rachel Carson

    With the launch this month of the RSPB’s programme to tackle the crisis facing migrant songbirds, Conor Jameson, colleague and author of Silent Spring Revisited, reflects on a poignant anniversary that falls today.

    The 50th anniversary of the US publication of Silent Spring inspired a flurry of headlines and comment in autumn 2012, particularly, of course, in North America, where author Rachel Carson is still widely revered. UK publication of this iconic book came a year later, in 1963, although by then the ripples had already been felt on this side of the Atlantic. Prince Phillip is said to have brought advance copies of Silent Spring to these shores aboard the royal yacht, so alarmed had he been by the insights within it.

    The words ‘silent spring’ were quickly ingrained in the public consciousness as the book sold worldwide. I sometimes wonder if any title, aside from religious texts, has been registered by so many, even those who have never picked up the book.

    What’s less well remembered about Rachel Carson is an event that gives us the third of three consecutive half-century anniversaries, and which falls on 14 April 2014. On that fine spring Sunday evening, in a Maryland town called Silver Spring, Rachel Carson died.

    She had lived barely 18 months beyond publication of her world-changing book; long enough to witness its extraordinary initial impact, and to weather the extreme backlash it provoked from sections of industry and the scientific community. Long enough too to be vindicated by President Kennedy’s Scientific Advisory Committee, specially appointed to examine the validity of the issues ‘Miss Carson’ had raised and exposed.

    CBS broadcast a special programme when the Committee released its findings. “Miss Rachel Carson had two immediate aims,” it declared. “One was to alert the public; the second, to build a fire under the Government. She accomplished the first aim months ago. Tonight’s report by the Presidential panel is prima facie evidence that she has accomplished the second.”

    “The report has vindicated me and my principal contentions,” Carson responded. “I am particularly pleased by the reiteration of the fact that the public is entitled to the facts... My reason for writing Silent Spring.”

    I’ve been giving talks on the theme of Rachel Carson’s legacy. People are usually shocked when I mention that Rachel Carson died so soon after Silent Spring, that she didn’t live to see the later impacts of its message: the banning of agrochemicals such as aldrin, dieldrin and heptachlor, the setting up of the Environmental Investigations Agency, and the withdrawal of DDT from the US a decade on, and later (as well as sooner) elsewhere.

    People were also shocked by news of Carson’s death in 1964, including many of those who knew her well. She hadn’t told them that she was seriously ill. In fact she had been battling illness for a substantial part of the four and half years it took to research and write Silent Spring.

    By the latter half of the project she was often in extreme discomfort. She kept secret her illness primarily because she was sure her opponents – the ranks of vested interest profiting from the ‘war on nature’ being waged at the time through indiscriminate ‘biocide’ use – would use it to undermine her still further, to question her motives and her objectivity.

    Rachel Carson had cancer. It has never been suggested – and certainly not by the author herself – that her condition was linked to agrochemical excesses. How could it be, any more that any individual case can be attributed to ambient toxins.

    But dying she most certainly was, and she bore this with the same quiet, stoic dignity that characterised all her public appearances and utterances. She was an extraordinarily resilient person, who overcame all the obstacles placed in the path of women wishing to train as scientists. She adopted and raised her orphaned grand-nephew. She was a carer and provider for older relatives too. Through the success of a trilogy of books on the marine environment she achieved the financial independence she needed, that made the Silent Spring project possible, despite everything. She had been able to retire from government service to work on the book, to bring the facts together and raise the alarm, knowing that government would not – or could not – do the job itself.

    It is the exceptional courage and dignity of Rachel Carson that I mostly urge people to recognise, as well as the wisdom of her words. If it were up to me, then April 14 would be officially designated as Rachel Carson Day. We might mark it each year not with a minute’s silence or even with a minute’s applause for her achievements. I’d advocate a minute’s birdsong – ideally the real thing.