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
  • Bad news for a Friday: RSPB reaction to Natural England issuing license to control up to 10 buzzards

    Many of the readers of this blog will remember ‘buzzardgate’, the subsequent u-turn and the licences granted to control buzzards in 2013.  

    The thorny issue of licenses for buzzard control reappeared today when Natural England issued a licence permitting the control of up to 10 buzzards to “prevent serious damage to young pheasants”.

    The killing of a recovering British bird of prey to protect an introduced gamebird for the benefit of commercial interest is wrong.  The decision sets a worrying precedent. What will be next? Red kites, peregrines, hen harriers?

    Buzzard flying free from harm? Ben Hall, rspb-images.com

    The fact that these commercial interests remain private and confidential is the second troubling point. Where is the transparency in this decision? As an issue of public interest why must it remain confidential?

    Most importantly, I believe the legal framework behind this decision is broken. There needs to be a public policy debate about how can it be right that as a growing number of gamebirds are released, a protected bird of prey is in the firing line to safeguard a shootable surplus of pheasants.

    Forty five million pheasants and six million red-legged partridge are released into the countryside each year. We don’t know what the ecological consequences of this introduction are but it’s hardly surprising that it attracts predators. The loss of some of these gamebirds is an inevitable consequence of doing business. Natural predators should not be bearing the cost in this instance. What we really need is the gamekeeping industry to identify ways in which they can live alongside buzzards and invest in protecting their poults without resorting the lethal control.

    Some might say about our position, you control wildlife, what's wrong with people controlling buzzards to protect pheasants?  

    This misses the point entirely.

    The control of predators is sometimes necessary for conservation and the RSPB is open about its use of such control on its own reserves (see here). Deciding to use lethal predator control is something we never take lightly, it is always a last resort after other methods of non-lethal control have failed. But there is a fundamental difference here. We use it in order to protect and conserve a public good, species already under pressure, delivering nature that all can see and enjoy.  In the case of the buzzard license, the control is designed to protect a private, commercial interest.

    Whilst some will try to paint it as such, this isn’t about the RSPB deploying an anti-shooting agenda through the back door, this is about us wanting to see a public debate around our relationship as a country with the natural world in the 21st century.

    A test of a modern society is one that tolerates predators and finds ways to live in harmony with them. Reaching for the gun, every time there is a perceived conflict, is the wrong response.

    What do you think about this decision?

    It would be great to hear your views.

  • Good news for a Friday: puffins bounce back on Lundy

    I want to start a new tradition of celebrating successful conservation projects on Fridays to end the working week on a high.

    So, here's my first Friday success story.

    Our team in the South-West of England have reported that puffin numbers on Lundy Island (an island in the Bristol channel) have rocketed, ten years after the island was declared rat-free.  More than 300 individual puffins have this year been counted on Lundy (which means puffin in Norse), from a low of only five birds ten years ago. 100 pairs are thought to be breeding; the remaining third are likely to be prospecting birds, which may breed in the future.

    Photo credit: Nick Stacey

    While the population has a long way to go to match the peak of 3,500 puffins reported in 1939, the recovery of this red-listed seabird provides more evidence of the success of the Lundy Seabird Recovery Project which was established to eradicate rats (which eat eggs and chicks) from the island between 2002 and 2004.  As I reported previously (also on a Friday) the Manx shearwater population has also thrived, with the most recent figures recording some 3,400 breeding pairs, from a low of only 300 pairs when the project was planned and conducted. 

    Why have we been successful?  Here are five reasons...

    1. Identify the primary cause of decline: as is the case on many islands around the UK, seabird colonies are vulnerable to non-native invasive species and so targeting effort at this problem to boost breeding success is essential.

    2. Develop a strong partnership to tackle the problem: following surveys which highlighted the seabird decline at the turn of the millennium, the RSPB forged a strong partnership with the Landmark Trust, Natural England, and the National Trust. It was this partnership that secured the resources to run the rat eradication programme.

    3. Follow best practice: no eradication programme is straightforward and the one on Lundy was no different.  There were logistical and technical difficulties of working on an inhabited and farmed island which is a tourist attraction and, inevitably, there were public affairs challenges that needed careful management.  Yet, all of these problems were overcome and the programme achieved its first objective when the island was declared rat-free in 2006.

    4. Monitor impact: the recovery programme could not be deemed successful until seabird numbers had increased.  We monitor the impact of any conservation intervention and as a result we have evidence of recovery of Manx sheerwater, puffin and even storm petrel which was recorded breeding on the island for the first time in 2014.

    5. Use success to catalyse action elsewhere: it was the success of Lundy that has inspired other RSPB eradication projects in places like St Agnes and Gugh (part of the Scilly Isles) and the Shiants.  Even when we are initially unsuccessful, as was the case on Henderson Island, we learn from the experience: we are currently planning a major new programme to eradicate mice from Gough Island to save critically endangered birds such as Gough bunting and Tristan albatross.

    The RSPB has identified seabirds (alongside summer migrants and species associated with the uplands) as those most in need of conservation action.  Our efforts focus on protecting their breeding grounds while also ensuring they have the right level of protection at sea.  

    Projects like the Lundy Seabird Recovery Project give us confidence that we can do what it takes to save nature.  

    I would like to congratulate all those involved and I look forward to sharing another success story next Friday.  

    Photo credit: Nick Stacey

  • Why the RSPB is withdrawing support for the Hen Harrier Action Plan

    The voluntary approach of the Hen Harrier Action Plan has failed, leaving licensing as the only viable option.

    I’m generally very patient.  My natural preference is to build partnerships and work to make positive change from the inside with those who want to abide by the law and deliver progress.

    However, sometimes that approach simply doesn’t work and there can be no clearer example of that right now than hen harriers, where illegal killing of this rare bird remains its most significant threat.

    The RSPB played a full part in the production of Defra’s Hen Harrier Action Plan and despite disagreeing with certain points (notably brood management), welcomed its publication earlier this year. However, at the time, I noted the need for immediate progress to help build trust in the approach.

    Unfortunately this has not happened.  

    Image courtesy of Shay Connolly

    In 2015, we were all extremely frustrated by there being just six successful hen harrier nests from 12 attempts in England.  2016 is on course to be much worse, with only three nests at the time of writing, none of which are on grouse moors.   

    Some will argue that the weather or vole population is to blame, however, early returns from the national hen harrier survey suggest numbers away from intensively managed grouse moors in north and west Scotland have done ok. We remain convinced that the primary reason for the hen harrier‘s continuing scarcity remains illegal killing.  

    Simply put, hen harriers (and other birds of prey) are illegally killed on some estates because they eat grouse. Crimes are committed to increase the number of grouse that can be shot. This year, there have been a series of depressingly predictable incidents in England and Scotland, the disappearance of the hen harriers ‘Chance’ and ‘Highlander’, the use of pole traps and the hen harrier decoy in the Peak District. And as well as hen harriers, it has also been a really bad year for red kites in North and West Yorkshire with several suspicious deaths.  In addition, there are more cases working their way through the legal system.

    All of this adds up to a picture which shows that the commitments made in the Hen Harrier Action Plan are not being delivered. People are still breaking the law and not enough is being done within the grouse shooting community to effect change.

    Some will argue that we should be more patient as behavioural change takes time.  But the hen harrier does not have time on its side and the longer hen harriers remain on the brink, the greater public antipathy towards intensive grouse shooting will become.

    Hen harriers and other birds of prey in our uplands will not recover without a completely different approach.  

    We have therefore decided to withdraw our support from Defra’s Hen Harrier Action Plan.

    We have come to this conclusion because we believe that reform to protect the hen harrier will only come through licensing of driven grouse shooting where, for example, crimes committed on estates managed for shooting should result in the withdrawal of their right to operate.  

    A licensing system isn’t about tarring everyone with the same brush, or blaming a whole community for the actions of the few.  Quite the opposite: it is effectively a targeted ban that will stamp out illegal activity and drive up the environmental standards of shooting.

    Law abiding estates have nothing to fear from this system and, indeed, I believe that it is in their own interests to champion such an approach.  We believe that this is the only way to deliver a significant shift in attitudes and potentially secure a future for their sport. Licensing systems appear to work well in most other European countries, so why not here as well?

    We fully support the current petition in Scotland and we would like to reinvigorate the call for Defra to introduce licensing in England too.

    Of course, we will continue to work on the ground with our partners, especially raptor workers (who monitor and protect birds of prey), landowners who wish to see a progressive future, local people and the police to provide the most effective possible year round protection.

    My preference is always for the partnership approach, but partnership requires action from both sides. In this case, that has failed. When shooting organisations are either unable or unwilling to lead the necessary change to rein in illegal activity, then reform must be delivered from outside. That is what we will now seek to do though promoting licensing.

    I fully expect our critics (such as the grouse industry funded You Forgot The Birds) to push out a wearyingly predictable series of attacks on the RSPB in coming weeks.  I can only imagine that this is designed to divert attention from criminal activity on some intensive grouse moors.  But this won't shake our resolve to seek change.

    An early opportunity to talk more about all of this will be at the Hen Harrier Day events. I’ll be at the Hen Harrier Day North East event at the RSPB's Saltholme reserve on Sunday 7 August, while my boss Mike Clarke will be at the event at Rainham Marshes on Saturday 6 August. Other RSPB representatives will be at various of the other events too. I hope to see many of you there and hopefully many more will be able to attend other events across the country.

    Together, we can and will save our hen harriers.