Martin Harper's blog

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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
  • A reaction from the RSPB's Chief Executive, Dr Mike Clarke, to the result of the referendum on the UK membership of the European Union

    The UK has voted to leave the European Union.

    The RSPB has always believed that, because nature transcends national boundaries, it needs cross-border co-operation to protect it and a common set of international standards that enable it to thrive.

    That is why, now the UK has decided to leave the EU, the RSPB believes the UK must continue to act internationally, and look to forge comprehensive international agreements for nature conservation and the environment.

    But we also need action at home.  

    David Tipling's fabulous image of two turtle doves - our fast declining migratory bird

    There are millions of people in the UK who love nature – just think about the viewing figures of BBC Springwatch. We need clean air and water, and we want an attractive countryside rich in wildlife.

    It is essential that we do not lose the current, hard won, level of legal protection. Given the current state of nature, we should be looking to improve the implementation of existing legal protection and, where necessary, to increase it.

    It will now be down to the governments in Westminster, Edinburgh, Belfast and Cardiff to make this happen.

    As the new constitutional settlement is negotiated over the coming months (and years?), the RSPB will continue to be a voice for nature, raising the importance of environmental issues that has an impact on people, wildlife and the economy. We will provide a constructive challenge to all governments across the UK where necessary, and give credit where it is due; just as we always have done.   

    And, of course, trans-national challenges such as protecting our migrating birds, tackling climate change remain, which is why we shall work internationally, as we have done so for over a hundred years, and will continue to act across Europe with our Birdlife International partners to tackle the many challenges facing nature.

    In short, we shall continue to do whatever nature needs.

    Finally, I hope that all those that have invested so much in this campaign take time to recover.  We need our leaders to be at their best as they make sense of this result and to rise to meet the challenges we and nature face.  Given that contact with nature is good for the soul, I recommend a visit to a local nature reserve this weekend. 

    Ben Hall's image of RSPB Arne at dawn (

  • An update on the review of the EU Nature Directives

    As we enter the final week of the EU Referendum campaign, I thought I would offer a brief update on the future of the the Birds and Habitats Directives (the Nature Directives).

    In May, I reported here that the overdue findings of the Fitness Check of the EU Nature Directives had still not been published.  Since then there have been further developments, but still not sign of a resolution. Regular readers will know that the Fitness Check is intended to be an evidenced-based review of whether the Nature Directives are fit for purpose, although politics has played a significant part from the off.  

    That said, I remain confident, not complacent, that the Directives will remain in place. More than half a million people have used their voices to defend the directives, and both the European Parliament and the Environment Council (EU Ministers of Environment) have pledged their support.

    This latter group is meeting today are meeting, and although the Fitness Check is not on the agenda, given their support we expect several Ministers to raise this topic. Pictured here showing their support for the Directives outside the Luxembourg Council buildings are Carole Dieschbourg, Minister of Environment for Luxembourg, and Rita Schwarzelühr-Sutter, Parliamentary State Secretary to the Federal Minister for the Environment, Nature Conservation, Building and Nuclear Safety for Germany.

    The results of the Fitness Check were originally scheduled for publication in the first quarter of 2016. By January 2016 this was looking ambitious, and so the Commission promised a report in time for discussion during the Netherlands presidency of the EU. The EU presidency is held in turn by all Member States for 6 months on a rolling basis.

    Regular readers will remember that the Netherlands government have paid very close attention to the Fitness Check. The Saving Special Places blog reports here on a recent visit by Dutch parliamentarians to RSPB’s Wallasea Island Wild Coast project to find out more about how the UK implements the Nature Directives, with a view to informing implementation in the Netherlands.

    Given this level of interest, it was hardly surprising when the Netherlands scheduled a major conference on the Nature Directives, titled “Future Proof Nature” to discuss the eagerly anticipated results of the Fitness Check. The conference was scheduled for next week, and looked set to bring together civil society, government ministers, officials from the Commission and Member States, and businesses to discuss the results, and what should happen next. I say was, because just last week the Netherlands Government decided to cancel the conference.

    The Commission’s promise to publish the findings in time for the conference has not been fulfilled. Last week EurActiv, an online news service on EU affairs, reported here on the cancellation of the conference and the delayed publication of the results. Of course, the delay might be justified if work was ongoing on the final report, but Euractiv had secured a leak of a draft of the Commission’s report, dated 4th January 2016, suggesting the results could have been published in time for the Netherlands conference.

    You can read the draft report here, if you have the time and inclination to wade through 584 pages of detailed evidence and analysis, but to spare you this, let me summarise; the Nature Directives are fit for purpose. The findings are unequivocal, “The majority of the evidence gathered across the five evaluation criteria shows that the legislation itself is appropriately designed and that, over time, implementation has improved, bringing important outcomes and impacts”.

    This is welcome news, but of course these findings have not yet been published, the Commission has not yet come up with a better implementation plan, and nature is still in trouble. Birds, habitats, wildlife, all are desperately in need of the conservation measures set out in the Nature Directives, but not yet fully delivered by Member State governments across the EU28. Meanwhile President Juncker’s office is delaying progress for no apparent reason.

    The day after the EurActiv article appeared, the European Commission Vice-President Frans Timmermans attended the European Parliament’s Environment Committee to answer questions from MEPs. Frans Timmermans found himself in the unenviable position of defending an indefensible decision that was not his own. In relation to the findings of the Fitness Check and the future of the Nature Directives he clearly stated, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, but many of the MEPs were not fully convinced, describing the delays as “unacceptable”, and pressing the Vice-President to commit to a publication date.

    During Frans Timmermans’ excoriating hearing in the European Parliament, one MEP, Danish Green Margrete Auken, gave him the benefit of the doubt, praising his acknowledgement that if the Nature Directives are working they should not be revised, and acclaiming, “there is more happiness in heaven over one sinner that repents, than over ninety-nine just persons”. Timmermans has seen the light, maybe it’s time that Commissioner President Jean-Claude Juncker opened his eyes to the evidence, and the 520,000 Europeans calling for something to be done for our beleaguered nature.

    Next week the European Commission returns to the Environment Committee for an “exchange of views with the Commission” on the follow-up to the European Parliament resolution on the mid-term review of the EU’s Biodiversity Strategy, which I commented on here. The Nature Directives are key to the delivery of several targets under the EU Biodiversity Strategy to 2020, and the longer uncertainty over their future is allowed to continue, and action to achieve full implementation is delayed, the bigger the task of bringing Europe’s wildlife back from the brink will be.

    Meanwhile a Freedom of Information request has been put submitted to the Commission by WWF for access to the final report of the Fitness Check consultants, on which the Commission’s report will be based. A response to this request is expected in the next weeks.

    We live in exciting times.

  • The conservationist's dilemma: an update on the science, policy and practice of the impact of predators on wild birds (3)

    I spent half-term with the family in the sun in the Cairngorms National Park.  As we have two of our most iconic reserves there, Abernethy and Insh Marshes, I was keen to pay a visit.  It was great to hear that the number of lekking male capercaillie at Abernethy has increased this year but alas, we failed to see any on our (very) early morning drive.  We wait with trepidation to see how the June weather turns out as our research shows a strong correlation between poor productivity and wet Junes.  At least Scotland seems to have had the better of the weather this month.

    The visit to Insh Marshes was my first.  Lying on the floodplain of the River Spey, the site is special for its breeding waders (snipe, curlew, lapwing, redshank), rare plants (eg string sedge) and invertebrates.  It's a magical place. The floodplain still has many characteristics of a naturally-functioning system and, as I saw on site, in the wet winter of 2015 one of the tributaries has cut a new path, creating dynamic wet features alive with wildlife. 

     It’s an interesting year for Insh as we are undertaking a study of lapwing productivity.  In recent years we have noted a decline in their productivity but previous research has not been able to identify the main cause.  This year we have a dedicated researcher monitoring the nests and the chicks to find out what happens.  The initial results show that many early nests were lost during the night with significant fox activity identified on the trail cameras and badgers also present.  We are now actively considering whether we need to start fox control there next year as the flood regime means it isn’t practical to install an anti-predator fence.

    As always, our approach to the issue of predation is based on evidence and guided by our Council agreed policy.  

    Our 2007 review of the evidence of the impacts of predation on wild birds concluded that generalist predators, such as foxes and corvids, can sometimes reduce the population levels of ground-nesting birds (such as waders, seabirds and gamebirds), and a more recent (soon to be published) review confirms these findings.  By contrast, the evidence that breeding songbird numbers are limited by predation is weak. Rather, there is compelling evidence – some of it experimental – that changes in farming practices have led to the declines of many farmland songbirds, and emerging evidence that numbers of some woodland songbirds have declined due to long-term changes in woodland structure.

    Deciding to use lethal predator control is something we never take lightly.

    Our approach means that we seek evidence of a problem, check whether there is a non-lethal solution, make sure that the killing of predators would be legal, effective and not harm their own conservation status.  If we can satisfy ourselves of all these things then we can make a decision.  As in previous years (see here and here), I have included tables below which show the lethal vertebrate control undertaken on reserves (which now number 210 sites covering more than 150,000 hectares across the UK).  Some of the numbers are higher than in previous years as the dataset covers a longer period (17 months) due to a change in the annual reporting schedule. 

    Finally, it is worth remembering that non-lethal approaches, although not realistic in some circumstances, can be very effective.  To illustrate this point, I have included a graph to show how well anti-predator fences are performing.  We now have fences at 28 reserves protecting breeding waders over 874 ha. At sites with anti-predator fences, lapwing productivity has been consistently above that necessary for population maintenance (0.6 chicks fledged per pair), even though at most sites only a proportion of the suitable habitat is protected by the fence (Fig. 1).

    This is a fantastic result and a great return for the effort invested by our ecologists and reserve teams.


    Vertebrates controlled on RSPB reserves in 2014-15

    Below are tables summarising the vertebrate control undertaken by RSPB and our contractors on reserves during the period 1 April 2014 to 31 August 2015.  The recording period is longer than in previous years as we altered our annual reporting timetable.  The extended period means that larger numbers of vertebrates were killed than in the previous 12 month reported period.  Only reserves where control was undertaken during the year have been included.  Vertebrate control commissioned by third parties as part of existing rights is not included here.

    a) For conservation reasons

    NB Feral means released birds outside their normal range.

    b) For other reasons


    Fig. 1. Mean lapwing productivity at RSPB reserves with anti-predator fencing, at which productivity has been regularly monitored. Bars show + one standard error. The figures above the bars show the number of reserves with anti-predator fencing, at which productivity has been regularly monitored.

    And to close, here's another gratuitous picture of the stunning Insh Marshes (credit Andy Hay,