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
  • Economics and joy

    Happy International Biodiversity Day!

    Last night, I spoke at the launch of Professor Dieter Helm’s new book, Natural Capital: Valuing the Planet.  It came a day after the launch (which I sadly missed) of another excellent book by Michael McCarthy, The Moth Snowstorm.  One is about the economics of nature the other about the joy of nature.  It seems entirely apt that these two contrasting books were launched in the same week.  Nature conservation is part joy part economic necessity.  What binds them is an imperative for urgent action.

    I was asked to offer a challenge back to Dieter.  To be honest, knowing Dieter, being a supporter of the work he has been doing with the Natural Captial Committee and having read the book, I think my challenge broadened away from Dieter and became more of a critique of the societal and political response to the parlous state of nature.  And in that, I was partly inspired by Mike’s new book.

    This is an expanded version what I said...

    At about half-past four this morning, I had the pleasure of watching black grouse lekking at the RSPB Geltsdale reserve in the northern Pennines.  Watching these birds dance for their mate is a special experience.  It might not be for everyone but it is a reminder of the wonder of nature.

    Memory of Thursday morning thanks to a smart phone and a scope

    Black grouse conservation can feel a million miles away from economic concepts such as valuing natural capital.  Watching nature to me is about joy and that joy comes from my love of wildlife.  It is what informs my values and my belief that conservation is a moral imperative – for humans to act as stewards of the natural world. 

    So, can economics help me and others have more joy?

    Dieter’s book outlines a blueprint for how it can.  Its approach is not without challenges – which I shall highlight - but I also want to explain why Dieter’s analysis is so important and is worth taking seriously.

    I am not an economist, so my comments should be seen through the lens of someone with 20 years of experience in and a passion of nature conservation.

    So what does nature need? 

    We want to keep common species common and prevent threatened species from becoming extinct.  To do that we need bigger, better and more connected protected areas, targeted action to recover threatened species and action to address the four horsemen of the ecological apocalypse – habitat destruction, invasive non-native species, pollution (especially that which results in climate change) and over-exploitation. 

    In short, we (and I mean all of us as consumers, business leaders and decision-makers) need to learn to live in harmony with nature. 

    This ambition is at the heart of the CBD global plan for nature expressed through the 2020 Aichi targets.

    Yet, the state of nature statistics are so dire that some are beginning to argue that we have just one generation left to prevent half of the world’s species from being committed to extinction.  Given the relationship between biodiversity and the free but critical services that nature gives us that, of course, would spell disaster for humans.

    So should we follow Dieter’s lead and embrace natural capital?  Does the natural capital approach, offer a practical means of mainstreaming and enhancing biodiversity considerations into public policy? 

    Dieter, in his new book, addresses most of the key issues that need attention – ambition, the policy and regulatory framework, financial and institutional arrangements.

    There is much to applaud within this package.  He deserves credit for proposing a 25 year plan to restore our nature which the current government embraced through its manifesto.  He rightly argues that the current millions (estimated as c£100b over next 6 years) spent on land and water management could work harder to enhance natural capital – a public good  He then goes further in offering some innovative financing options which together could create an aggregate natural capital fund.  He calls this ‘the prize’.

    He is bullish about the need to embrace a regulated system for compensating loss of natural capital and makes a strong case for statutory underpinning of the Natural Capital Committee to complement the work of existing environmental agencies.

    If government was to accept the entirety of this package, we should be delighted.  You could imagine a scenario at Geltsdale for example, where natural capital payments look after the carbon locked in the blanket bog and guarantee the water quality while agri-environment payments help provide the management for fussy bits of wildlife like black grouse.

    But the hard-nosed economics needs something else to make it fly.

    Because some societal considerations are beyond the bounds of economic calculus – we cannot reduce the importance of wildlife to a single monetised figure.  Now, I don’t think Dieter is saying this.  But some might.  Many believe there is an ethical imperative to care about the fate of the millions of other species with which we share this planet.  That ethical consideration is beyond any economic rationale.

    So, for me and I think many involved in nature conservation, we see the natural capital agenda outlined by Dieter as essential to reframing the fundamental importance of the natural world to our wellbeing – it gives us legitimacy to engage in the big economic conversations about growth and prosperity. 

    But we need more.  We need to understand what motivates people to act and inspire more to do so.  I see the Wildlife Trusts do this through their “My Wild Life” campaign, National Trust through their “50 things to do before you are 11 ¾” campaign and also through RSPB’s “Giving Nature a Home” and “Vote for Bob” campaigns.  From engagement, comes motivation to act.

    The natural capital agenda is about making nature relevant to economics and therefore essential if we want the Treasury to evolve its thinking. 

    Public pressure can create space for politicians to act.  The more people calling for change, may encourage civil servants and economists to think and act differently.  And this is when I think Dieter’s agenda will get real traction.

    Let’s assume it does, here then are five challenges that we will inevitably have to address...

    1. We need to integrate the longer term natural capital perspective with the short term imperatives for  jobs and growth.  What reform of HMT would be required to enhance its focus on longer term economic planning relative to its short-term budgetary function?
    2. Natural capital assets do not align with administrative boundaries and businesses that affect them, like water companies, are not encouraged by policy or legislation to operate coherently with ecological systems.  What will need to change in order to make operational a natural capital approach?
    3. As Dieter acknowledges, biodiversity is particularly difficult to value and not amenable to pricing yet biodiversity often acts as the glue that binds ecosystem services together.  Can natural capital accommodate this ecological value?
    4. When it comes to valuation, Dieter often calls for valuation that it is better to be roughly right rather than precisely wrong.  But what if we get perverse unintended consequences for example if it makes economic sense to trade away a natural service (eg for flood defence) for an artificial one (eg  one made of concrete)?  Is there a danger that more weight is given to what we can measure compared to what we cannot?
    5. And finally, Dieter seems a bit sceptical about the role that regulation can play, but to me, the laws that protect our nature (especially the EU Nature Directives), are the foundation for nature conservation in this country and across Europe – and help deliver huge value for humans.  I, for one, through experience have limited appetite for voluntary measures and market mechanisms seem a long way off.  What needs to be done to ensure the current deregulatory push in the UK and across EU doesn’t end up trading away essential legislative protection?

    These challenges are real, but they should not be seen as a reason to depart from the agenda and direction that Dieter has outlined.  I commend his book to all of you.  Who knows, it may even lead to more black grouse and ultimately more joy.

    Andy Hay's slightly more impressive photo of two lekking male black grouse

  • Supporting friends and partners in Nepal: guest blog by Conor Jameson

    Last week Nepal suffered a second earthquake in as many weeks. Here, I welcome back Conor Jameson to offer his personal reflections on the impact of this disaster and what we can do to help.

    Like everyone else I have watched with horror and dread as news and images from Nepal    have reached us in the last few weeks. First one, then a second, major earthquake have devastated the country, killing thousands and injuring many more. The pain and distress - and the likelihood of further suffering - are almost unimaginable, viewed from afar. 

    I say ‘almost’, because the tragic events feel very close to home for me, the distress of affected communities all too vivid. Four weeks before the first tremor struck, I was lucky enough to be in Kathmandu. I was sitting in the historic Durbar Square, World Heritage Site, reflecting on a life-changing fortnight exploring the country. On the steps of temples I mingled with friendly Buddhist monks and happy children, exchanging smiles and greetings with strangers. It is the bonhomie and high spirits of Nepalese people that make such an impression on the visitor. One evening, when the front wheel of our truck disappeared into a storm drain, in minutes a group of passers-by had assembled, and without a pause had surrounded the vehicle and lifted us clear, amid much hilarity. They barely hung around to be thanked. Nepal is one of the poorest countries in Asia. Most people have very little, but what they have they share, willingly and without expectation of much in return. 

    By chance I befriended a young couple, Sanjay and Nimisha. They are students of tourism who were just finishing their exams at college. They helped me shelter when an early monsoon rain sent us all scuttling for cover. They ordered me Nepali tea and Nuwari food, then lost no time in arranging to give me a free guided tour the next day, of the ancient temples in their home district of Bhaktapur – another World Heritage Site, of which they are very proud. We rode on the top of a bus to the oldest temple in the country, and we strolled back high above a valley, as cuckoos called, shikra hawks displayed, and eagles soared. 

    In the preceding ten days I had had the privilege of visiting half a dozen communities between the airy foothills of the Himalayas, and the hot plains of the Terai. A few communities are working with our partner organisation Bird Conservation Nepal (BCN) on projects to achieve sustainable wildlife conservation boosted by activities like eco-tourism. The focal point of these projects is endangered vultures of different species. Safe animal carcases (free from lethal veterinary drugs) are provided to the birds. 

    Everywhere we went, my colleague Toby Galligan and I were greeted by friendly, good humoured communities. We witnessed the thrilling spectacle of vulture flocks in stunning valleys, against the backdrop of Nepal’s heavenly skyline. The sense of harmony with nature, in beautiful surroundings, will stay with me. No wonder the children always seemed so happy, enjoying such an outdoor life. 

    Cattle are sacred in Nepal. They wander freely until old age, adding to the cheerful chaos of urban streets and highways. Supported by RSPB and BCN, some of the villages we visited have developed a simple and brilliant scheme - setting up ‘retirement homes’ for very elderly cattle. We call these cattle rescue centres. They give the beasts comfortable final days, stops them keeling over in inconvenient places, or causing accidents, and ensures a safe supply of food for vultures locally. It also proves a tourist attraction, with Nepal’s many other natural and cultural attractions part of the package. There are a lot of winners in this arrangement. 

    Our goal has been to find ways of sustaining this happy relationship between local people and the wildlife that is the crowning glory of this dramatically beautiful, inspiring country. And then the earthquake struck. 

    It is needless for me to repeat that watching the tragic events unfold in Nepal in recent days has been difficult – like a recurring bad dream. Those centuries-old, sacred temples have crumpled. I still find this difficult to comprehend. The death toll has mounted by the day. I have had the reassurance that some of those I met and got to know are at least physically unscathed. Khadananda Paudel of BCN, who led our visit, has been quick to assure us that all at BCN are safe, and carrying on stoically with their conservation work with the village groups. Sanjay and Nimisha have been made homeless – like so many others they are living in temporary shelters, until buildings are made secure again. 

    We can all help Nepal by donating to the relief appeals. We can also help, in the longer term, by considering a visit to the country, when it is back on its feet. I hope if you do that you find time to get a little bit off the beaten tourist track and visit projects like ours, working with communities to sustain the sublime natural environment of this brave, spirited country, embodied in the reputation of its religious figures, mountain guides and Gurkha regiments which have done so much for us. Nepal and its people hold a deserved place in the world’s affections. I hope they know that.


    Conor Jameson


  • Beyond A Joke

    The news of three hen harriers vanishing in as many weeks has rightly received a lot of media interest and concern (for example see here and here). History* tells us that the most likely reason is illegal persecution but, unfortunately, not everyone seems as intent on helping us and the police find out what happened.

    Hay fever, summer colds, England’s search for an opening batsman to partner Alastair Cook. Some things just will not go away. It appears we can add the steady stream of Ian Botham fronted “You Forgot the Birds” press releases to that list.

    When a press release (now covered in the Daily Telegraph, see here) landed on my desk yesterday announcing that England's second-highest Test wicket-taker had decided to wade into hen harrier conservation, I honestly thought it was a joke. My suspicions were raised still further when I read the release and discovered Mr Botham was offering £10,000 to anyone who could take the eggs from one of the failed Bowland hen harrier nests into an aviary, raise the chicks and release them back into the wild. These would be the eggs which had been abandoned and were no longer viable. The RSPB is committed to bringing the hen harrier back from the brink of extinction, but we’ve not yet worked out how to bring them back to life. I can only assume Mr Botham is getting a little too excited about the new Jurassic Park film and is confusing fact and fiction again.

    I could go on, poking fun at some of the surreal suggestions set out (I really could, I’ve had references to Monty Python from colleagues), but I’m not going to. It would be wrong to make light of what is in reality a very serious issue – hen harriers remain on the brink of extinction as a breeding species in England and three birds have disappeared from their last stronghold in a matter of weeks.

    Nor am I going to go through and offer yet another point by point rebuttal of why brood management scheme isn’t justified on legal, moral or conservation grounds. I’ve done that plenty of times before (see here, here and here).

    Instead I’m going to respond to one of Mr Botham’s points and one point only. I try to respond rationally to almost every situation and, away from sport, I’m not given to spasms of emotion. But the statement from Mr Botham that the RSPB are “rubbish at conservation” is just egregiously wrong.

    At the end of last year, I was delighted to report on a huge range of RSPB achievements on and off our nature reserves (see here). These are not the achievements of a "rubbish" organisation. To come out with such offensive, ill-informed comments as that, I can only assume Mr Botham has never met any of the staff and volunteers I am honoured to work with.  Indeed, my offer to show Ian Botham the work we do on and off our reserves has yet to be accepted.

    One final thought. Buried at the bottom of the list of editor’s notes in the press release is this gem – “The You Forgot The Birds Campaign is funded by the British grouse industry”. Now many of us may have suspected this, but I don’t think they’ve claimed this in public before and who knows if they really do represent the whole industry.

    It’s also interesting to note grouse shooting being referred to as an ‘industry. In many ways this seems right – after all, on some intensive grouse moors of northern England and southern and eastern Scotland, red grouse are produced on an industrial scale for shooting. Yet, any industry's licence to operate is in part dependent on social and environmental impact. This is why I have repeatedly said that the industry representatives should have a zero tolerance of illegal killing of birds of prey and do more to restore our uplands. Standards of social responsibility and delivering for the public good are concepts which seem notably absent from the You Forgot the Birds rhetoric.

    The cause of hen harrier’s continued rarity and the solution to tackle this is clear. The RSPB will continue to focus on ending illegal persecution, rather than Ian Botham's dubiously legal nest-interference scheme based on half-truths and prejudices.

    *Male hen harriers disappearing while part of an active nesting attempt is exceptionally unusual in most habitats.  A 2008 Natural England report “A Future for the Hen Harrier in England?”, found that it was almost never recorded in most habitats, while nearly 70% of nesting attempts which failed on grouse moors, did so because an adult disappeared (see figure 4 on page 14).  Government-commissioned research (here) has shown that the English uplands could support more than 300 pairs of hen harriers. The authors conclude that persecution, associated with the practice of managing moors for driven grouse shooting, is to blame for the harrier’s plight.  What's more, Natural England has previously stated that there is compelling evidence that persecution, both during and following the breeding season, continues to limit hen harrier recovery in England.