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
  • Conflict in Malta over autumn hunting: guest blog from Steve Micklewright, Birdlife Malta

    On the day that Environment Commissioner Janez Potocnik celebrates 35 years of the EU Birds Directive (see here), I am pleased to host a blog from Steve Micklewright, Executive Director of our partner, Birdlife Malta.  He has kindly taken the time to give an update on some appalling events in Malta, triggered by the decision to introduce a temporary closure of the hunting season.

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    Malta has found itself in a storm of controversy in recent days.  Following a series of shootings of rare and protected birds, including white storks, by some of the islands 10,000 hunters, the Prime Minister decided to close the autumn hunting season from 20th September until 10th October.  These dates were chosen because they usually coincide with the peak of migration of protected species over the islands, especially raptors.

    There is another, more political reason for closing the season for this amount of time. Karmenu Vella has been nominated by Malta and selected by the new European President to be Commissioner with responsibility for the environment.  He is due to undergo a serious grilling by MEPs on 29th September and Malta’s terrible reputation with respect to bird hunting and trapping is likely to be high on their list of concerns.  The European Commission will also be visiting Malta on 9th October to discuss with BirdLife Malta, the FKNK (theMaltese hunters federation) and the Maltese Government how the derogation from the Birds Directive which allows hunting in spring and a new derogation which will allow finch trapping are being implemented.  

    A show of strength against the abuses of hunters was therefore both useful politically as well as likely to save the lives of countless protected species that would otherwise be illegally shot.  

    However, it is to be hoped that the MEPs that will question Karmenu Vella next week will see through these political motives and instead focus on the huge abuses of EU rules which take place in Malta.  It is now the only country that allows hunting in spring for turtle doves and quail and it is about to reverse a commitment to ban the trapping of finches forever – this commitment was part of Malta being allowed to join the EU in the first place.

    Since it was elected in 2013, the new Labour government has put the demands of hunters above bird conservation and it has systematically weakened the controls on hunting and trapping that existed.  One of the reasons protected birds have been targeted recently is that the government removed a 3pm curfew on hunting during the peak migration of raptors to prevent them being targeted.  It was inevitable that this rollback would result in a slaughter of birds.  The situation has been compounded by the redeployment of experienced enforcement officers in to other parts of the police force and the systematic harassment of BirdLife Malta’s staff and volunteers by the police, including the high profile detention of naturalist and TV presenter, Chris Packham in April.

    The temporary closure of the hunting season, which usually runs from five months between September 1st and January 31st, resulted in an explosive reaction from the hunting community.  

    On the day Malta celebrated the 50th anniversary of its independence from the UK, with Prince William as guest of honour; several hundred hunters took part in an illegal protest in the capital, Valletta.  One brandished an apparently fake shotgun, while others hurled abuse and bottles at government supporters and attacked journalists.  After the protest, a group of 30 hunters then went to Buskett woodlands where thirteen BirdLife Malta volunteers and their friends, including a 7 year old child, had gathered to watch the daily arrival of birds of prey to the woodlands to begin roosting.

    Instead of quietly enjoying the natural spectacle of raptors coming in to roost for the night, the volunteers were set upon by the hunters.  An elderly gentleman was punched in the face and had to go to hospital for treatment of his cuts and bruises and another volunteer suffered a leg injury.  Riot police quickly attended the scene and the volunteers were safely escorted from the woodland.  

    This is what happens in Malta when the hunting community does not get what it wants.  

    This thuggish and disgusting behaviour is also coinciding with a meeting in Brussels organised by FACE, the European Hunters Federation, to discuss the Birds Directive.  Two representatives of the Maltese hunters’ federation will be in attendance.  It is essential that MEPs probe Mr Vella’s attitude to hunting on Malta as it is relevant to his suitability to be confirmed in post. Maltese hunters are almost certainly pressuring FACE to call for a weakening of the Birds Directive to legitimise the decimation of migrating birds that takes place on Malta every year, we have to expect that the more reasonable hunters in the federation will argue in favour of keeping the Birds Directive in tact.  Any weakening would result in even more unsustainable hunting in Europe, something which is as bad for hunters as it is for birdwatcher and the birds themselves.

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    If you would like to support Birdlife Malta's extraordinary efforts, you can donate here.

  • How laws can help save nature

    There are arguably three crises facing the planet: catastrophic climate change, rapid biodiversity loss and an increasing disconnection of people from nature.  

    I was thinking about our responses to these issues as I travelled to Manchester for my first stop of this year's party conference season*.  On twitter there was deluge of images of people participating in 2,000 marches around the world - including 40,000 people that took to the streets of London.   The events had been organised to urge global leaders to do whatever's necessary to deliver a fair and binding climate change deal - starting at the Climate Summit in New York this week.   

    While my commitments in Manchester meant I missed the London march (and I arrived too late for the one in Manchester!), I was delighted to join a discussion with the Wildlife Trusts and shadow Environment Secretary, Maria Eagle MP, about what politicians need to do to drive nature's recovery and to help all of us have more contact with nature.  The case for action is clear: 60% of species (for which we have adequate data to detect a trend) have declined in my lifetime, one in ten are at risk of extinction, 65% of SSSIs in England are in unfavourable condition, a third of the ecosystems which provide humans with free services are degraded and only one in five children have adequate contact with nature.

    This is why we have joined forces with the The Wildlife Trusts to call for a Nature and Wellbeing Act to be introduced after the General Election.  This would provide a framework for politicians at national and local level to play their part in turning round these appalling statistics.  

    But, we have understandably been challenged as to why we need legislation to deal with these problems.  Surely, some ask, we have enough laws and policies to turn things around if only we had the will?  Up to a point, this is correct - there are many obligations already in place (for example through existing wildlife laws or through planning policy) which could and should be partly sufficient.  Yet, it is at least a contestable point that we have had good cross-party ambition for nature conservation since the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992.  This paved the way for a new Convention on Biological Diversity which paved the way for the UK Biodiversity Action Plan which was launched by the then Environment Secreatry, John Gummer.  2010 commitments to halt biodiversity loss were set (and missed) and despite establishing a new Biodiversity Strategy for England, the current coalition Government was given a red card for its performance on nature conservation by last week's cross-party Environmental Audit Committee of MPs.

    My assessment of successive governments' failure to match ambition with action is that, firstly, Defra is too easily distracted by other issues (it is, after all, the department that has to deal with floods, plagues and pestilence), and secondly it does not have the support of other government departments or indeed local authorities.  This lack of support may be to do with a lack of resources or competing priorities rather than direct hostility, but it is pretty obvious we don't have joined up government action - how else could you explain the Ministry of Defence's decision to sell public land of high environmental value (SSSI) for housing at Lodge Hill in Kent?

    And this brings me back to climate change.  Here, we have legislation to establish carbon budgets for the whole of government and the government architecture to monitor and scrutinise progress objectively (through the Committee on Climate Change).  Not everybody likes it and some have been frustrated by the inconsistent signals that have emerged from government over the past few years about our desire to move to a low carbon economy.  But, this legislation continues to bite - forcing government to act in a more consistent and coherent manner while providing certainty to investors.  And, when Prime Minister David Cameron addresses the UN Summit next week he will be able to say that our climate legislation is leading the world reinforcing the UK's role as an environmental leader.  

    I do not think that the UK's trajectory to a low carbon future would have withstood the economic shock of 2008 and our response to it without the Climate Change Act.  

    We just have not seen the same determination to get to grips with what nature needs.  And this is why, I think new legislative to drive nature's recovery is essential. 

    A Nature and Wellbeing Act would provide certainty, coherency and consistency to landowners, developers, agencies, local authorities, Whitehall departments and civil society.  Together, not only can we tackle climate change but we can also drive nature's recovery - demonstrating that our species can live in harmony with the millions of species with which we share this planet.

    *The RSPB 2014 conference tour has already taken in the Greens and following Labour this week, we visit Birmingham for the Conservatives and end in Glasgow for the Liberal Democrats - and, of course, we'll be speaking up for nature at party conferences in each of the countries which take place later in the year.

  • Saving nature: why we still need heroes

    At the launch of Canvey Wick - branded as Britain's first reserve for bugs - I found myself reflecting on all the heroic deeds it takes to save a site for nature... 

    ...the expertise of local naturalists that identified the importance of the site

    ...the campaign led by Matt Shardlow, his Buglife team and the local community to protect the site from development

    ...the pioneering role of English Nature (now Natural England) staff in notifying the site as a SSSI

    ...the efforts of local councilors and local wildlife groups in harnessing community support before ownership was secured by the Land Trust and Buglife and RSPB took on shared responsibility for management.

    I was glad that Steve Backshall was there to cut the ribbon, show off some moths (if not his dancing skills) and engage a packed marquee about the wonders of the site - home to over 1500 invertebrates.

    So many special places for wildlife across the country have similar histories - wonderful places loved by local people, threatened by development, but saved due to heroic deeds. Places like Sydenham Hill Wood (over which my old flat in London looked), Rainham Marshes, and Oxleas Wood have, at various stages in their history, been contested land.  But, through determination, passion and smart campaigns these sites were saved.

    And as I wandered to the edge of Canvey Island with our site manager,  I couldn't help but think about the other side of the Thames and Lodge Hill in north Kent.  Another special site for wildlife and now under severe threat of development.  The good news is that over 7,000 people have now written to the Secretary of State Eric Pickles to urge him to 'call-in' the decision by Medway Council to approve outline planning for 5,000 houses on this SSSI.  The local campaign is growing and, if you have not done so already, please do join in here.

    Heroism comes in all shapes and sizes.  Modern nature conservation requires dedicated campaigners like the Friends of North Kent Marshes who have seen off two airport proposals.  We need figureheads like Steve Backshall to bring to life the wonders of the natural world and we need more people to do their bit - whether writing to politicians or joining the Climate March on Sunday.  The efforts add up.

    And finally, we need modern-day equivalents of Samuel Pepys - not diarists (or bloggers - there are enough of them) - but excellent administrators.  Pepys, famed for his diary, is less well known for helping to grow the British navy through his extraordinary administrative skills.  In this increasingly complex world where change seems a constant, we should be celebrating the heroic modern-day administrators who harness the skills of dedicated campaigners and grow the impact of the nature conservation community.