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
  • In praise of Sir John Randall MP, Conservative MP for Uxbridge and South Ruislip

    Yesterday, Sir John Randall MP, longstanding Conservative MP for Uxbridge and South Ruislip and birder, made his last contribution in a Christmas Adjournment Debate in the House of Commons.  Sir John is standing down at the next election and will be sorely missed.  As demonstrated by his participation in last week's Rally for Nature, he remains a loyal supporter of the RSPB and its mission.  When in opposition, he was a great champion of marine conservation and the campaign to end the wild bird trade, while in government I am sure that he used his dark arts in the Whips office to good effect.

    On a more personal note, John has always offered wise counsel to me and to many others in the sector.  This has been much appreciated particularly during difficult moments when nothing seems to be going nature's way.

    I thought I'd share with you a short extract yesterday's speech.  This is lifted from Hansard and shows what will be missed after the election...

    Credit: Eleanor Bentall, RSPB Images

    Sir John Randall: One of the things I have been very pleased to have played a small part in during my time in the House is the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009, because I did some work on marine issues. I was delighted to hear the recent announcement on fisheries. The anglers and I do not always agree—they have different policies from mine on cormorants and goosanders—but I have spoken to Members and an ex-Member, Martin Salter, and they are disappointed that there are not enough measures relating to the preservation of sea bass stocks. We should address that.

    I know that not only the House but somebody from Private Eye who likes to follow these debates and regards my speeches as among the most boring things that happen in this place would be disappointed if I did not mention birds in the remaining minutes of my speech. I was disappointed that the hon. Member for Rochester and Strood (Mark Reckless) did not take my intervention earlier, because I was going to welcome him to the side of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. I remember having a heated discussion with him in the Members’ Lobby some time ago. He had said during a Westminster Hall debate that houses were more important than birds, so I was going to congratulate him on his Damascene conversion in the past few months. Is it not refreshing to find UKIP actually speaking on behalf of west African migrants? We should all welcome that.

    I want to talk about a success story, which Members from both sides of the House can take pleasure in. The bittern—the bog bumper, as it is also known—has been increasing. It is a marvellous bird. People do not need to go to incredibly special places to see them. In the winter, not far away at the London Wetland centre in Barnes, people can, if they are lucky, see these elusive denizens of the marsh. In 1997, there were only 11 booming males. They are called that because of their display call, which can be heard for miles.

    John McDonnell: How does it go?

    Sir John Randall: I do not think that Hansard had better try to do it.

    In 2014, there are now 140 boomers, or singing males, over 61 sites. The great thing is that that is all the result not only of a bittern project, but of making sure that the reed beds are in a good way. I am particularly pleased about the reed beds not only for the bitterns, but for other denizens of the reed beds that are doing really well. One bird that I perhaps feel a great affinity for, and which is also doing well, is the bearded tit. [Laughter.]

    And that seems like a good way to end the week.

  • 125 years and counting

    For many (but alas not me), today will be the last working day of the year, so it feels appropriate to offer a mini review.

    2014 has marked the RSPB's 125th anniversary.  We have not made much of a fanfare about this - we've kept the bunting in the cupboard.  Yet, anniversaries do make you reflect and it is good for the soul to be reminded of what the RSPB has achieved in its history.   Our past successes give us confidence that we can rise to face the 21st century challenges facing nature.

    Back in the mid nineteenth century, there were just 50 breeding pairs of great crested grebe in Britain.  This was one of the species which had been heavily persecuted for their feathers for use in hats and also by the clothing industry as 'grebe fur'.  The use of feathers in the hat trade motivated the early RSPB supporters to take to the streets (see below).  Following a long campaign by the fore-fathers and mothers of the RSPB, this type of exploitation was banned.  And today, there are about 12,000 breeding pairs of great crested grebe in the UK. 

    Last year's State of Nature report (here) demonstrated that many more species are in serious trouble today - one in ten at risk of extinction.  So, last week we (and furry friends like Bob) took to the streets again as part of our Rally for Nature.  It was a great day which showed solidarity amongst the nature conservation community and gave people an opportunity to use their voices for nature.   Despite the challenges facing nature and the low political profile of environmental issues, the mood was positive because we felt that together we could achieve great things.  This felt a fitting finale to 2014 - a tough year but one still packed with successes achieved by our staff, volunteers and the many partners we work with.

    Rally for Nature.

    And I do want to dwell briefly on some of the successes we have had in a year which started with debates about floods and dredging (see here) and ended with climate change talks in Lima, Peru (see here).  At the RSPB we judge ourselves by the impact we are having on nature and specifically species.  As a colleague once put it more colourfully ‘how many bums are we putting on nests?’  As I reported on Monday, it has been a record year for bittern (see here), and the list of other species that are doing better because of our work (with partners) is impressively long – you can feast your eyes here

    Lapwings have had a really successful year on several RSPB reserves (see here).

    And here are some other highlights.

    More land managed for nature...

    ...for example, on a warm September evening I joined Steve Backshall (hot foot from rehearsing Strictly Come Dancing), our friends and colleagues from Buglife and an enthusiastic audience to launch Canvey Wick – proving that for bugs and insects the only way is Essex!  Our joint Buglife and RSPB reserve is uniquely rich in the variety of invertebrates that now have a safe home (see here).  The RSPB now owns or manages over 150,000 hectares of land across 210 nature reserves.

    More support...

    ...and thinking of Giving Nature a Home – we now have more members than at any time in our history indicating that our investment is our award winning advertising is starting to pay dividends.  

    ..our Conference for Nature built on the success of the earlier State of Nature conference and was once again graced by the presence of Sir David Attenborough.  It was an opportunity to bring together politicians and business leaders to encourage them to do more for nature.  The day illuminated by some though provoking presentations none more so than this contribution here from Mike Barry, Director of Sustainable Business at Marks & Spencer.

    More great science...

    ...for example, a joint study between University of Exeter, the RSPB and the Pan-European Common Bird Monitoring Scheme (PECBMS) revealed a decrease of 421 million individual birds over 30 years across Europe.  This should serve as a massive wake up call to the challenges faced by birds at a continental scale.

    ...we continue to demonstrate that is possible to farm profitably while recovering farmland wildlife (see here).  


    More battles won...

    ...for example, the rejection of the Thames Estuary as a potential location for a new airport brought a loud, raucous cheer – this mad idea has been the subject of serial rejections for decades our campaigning alongside local people in North Kent was founded on sound arguments and persistence (see here).  Unfortunately, many of other sites remain under threat from development and staff across the organisation have probably engaged in over 750 cases this year. of resolutions at the Convention on Migratory Species in Quito to phase out toxic lead from ammunition and the vulture-killing drug diclofenac from veterinary use were huge achievements brought about by long years of advocacy involving RSPB, BirdLife International and WWT.

    ...and finally, our dedicated team of investigators continue to work tirelessly with the police to catch those intent on persecuting our magnificent birds of prey.  This is why we welcomed recent news of a gamekeeper being convicted of illegally killing a goshawk (see our statement and the video of the offence here). We will do whatever it takes to end wildlife crime and to allow these birds to fly free from harm.

    The challenges facing nature are huge but the RSPB will not be daunted.  We've been fighting for nature for 125 yeas and we are going to carry on doing whatever nature needs. 

    Of course, we can only continue to achieve great things with the loyal support of our members.  So at the end of our 125th year, I want to say a big thanks to all of you wherever you may be!

  • Where to invest and where to make cuts: a spotlight on Northern Ireland

    Either side of the 2010 election, over 350,000 people signed our Letter to the Future (here).  This called on politicians to consider the health of the planet when making big decisions about where to make cuts and where to invest.  At the time, few anticipated the scale of the cuts in public spending that would follow and, while efficiency savings have been found, this has inevitably thwarted political ambitions to protect and enhance the natural environment.

    The impact of these cuts has been compounded by a reluctance to make full use of funding that had been made available.  This time last year, the UK Government and devolved administrations made decisions about how much money they'd commit to wildlife friendly farming from the CAP settlement.  The Welsh Government was the only one to deliver the maximum available according to EU rules while other governments caved in to lobbying pressure by the farming unions.  In Northern Ireland, politics completely scuppered a deal by Christmas and  it was a number of months before things settled down and a budget was made available (here).

    One year on, it seems my colleagues in Northern Ireland are once again in the firing line - the environment budget is about to be hit very hard (11.1%) as part of the Northern Ireland Executive's  proposed spending plants for 2015-16.  This will inevitably affect core environmental programmes including those run by NGOs.  And, this may change the nature of civil society in Northern Ireland as infrastructure for volunteer engagement is eroded.

    I sympathise with the NI Department of Environment - the cuts are being imposed.  But, I think the people of Northern Ireland deserve a bigger say in the decisions that are about to made. 

    The department is running a consultation in December (usually the most hectic time of year) but it is difficult to square their proposals in the draft budget which has been “predicated on a carry forward of the five key PfG  [Programme for Government] priorities” which include, amongst other things: growing a sustainable economy, tackling disadvantage and improving health and well-being, protecting the environment, and building strong communities.

    These priorities make it clear that a healthy natural environment is key to meeting the objectives of the Northern Ireland Executive. As highlighted by the UK National Ecosystem Assessment (UK NEA, 2011), “Northern Ireland’s habitats and biodiversity deliver a suite of ecosystem services and contribute significantly to the quality of life and well-being of the population”.

    This ground-breaking review of the evidence made it clear that “recognising the importance of the environment for human health and well-being ….is vital if Northern Ireland is to make strategic decisions which ensure continued and enhanced delivery of services from our countryside” .

    Although it is difficult to accurately quantify many of the benefits provided by a healthy natural environment in simple economic terms, studies of protected sites in England and Wales have shown that as well as playing a vital role in the conservation of threatened species, the benefits of investing in the protection of such sites outweigh the costs to the public purse by a ratio of almost 9:1!

    However, it is not immediately obvious that this  evidence been adequately taken into consideration by the draft budget proposals. Despite the stated focus on carrying forward the key priorities outlined in the Northern Ireland Programme for Government, the draft budget ignores the need for a more long-term view of the consequences for human health, well-being, and prosperity which would flow from reduced investment in the protection and enhancement of the natural environment.

    Our team has highlighted the jeopardy for nature and options for raising alternative funds here.

    We know what the outcome is likely to be if these cuts go ahead; in England, Defra has also faced disproportionately large cuts relative to many other departments (approximately double the average depending on how it is measured) at the same time as progress on improving the state of nature has largely stalled or gone into reverse (see the recent publication of England’s biodiversity indicators here).

    It is clear that we need a new approach to funding the environment, one that recognises that protecting nature is not simply something that we can only afford to do in the good times but rather is something that we must always prioritise due to its key role in underpinning key services.  The message in Letter to the Future is the same today as in 2010: it pays to invest in nature.

    And if the rational view doesn't work, then we need to find novel ways of demonstrating the public support for nature - and that is where our friend Bob comes in.  Bob's supporters are urging their MPs that they want a better deal for nature.  I was pleased to see that 41 MPs from across the political spectrum were keen to talk about nature and have their photograph taken with Bob this week.  In total, 77 MPs are now supporting Bob.  You should too - we need to make it desirable for politicians to make big commitments for nature.

    And if you care about what is happening in Northern Ireland, please also respond to the consultation details of which are shown here.