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
  • Climate change: mitigate, adapt or suffer - reaction to the latest report from the Climate Change Committee

    A fortnight ago I was one of 9,000 people at Westminster talking to my MP about climate change.  

    So today’s report from the Government’s Climate Change Committee is particularly timely. It reminds us quite how many of the things we love could be put at risk by climate change and outlines what action government needs to take.

    It's warning that storms and high seas will put 40,000 more homes at risk of flooding, and that many thousands of people could be hospitalised because of over-heating, is another urgent call to action.

    As a charity, our primary focus is on nature.  So, we pay attention to see how vulnerable England’s nature is to climate change. The report makes it very clear that far too many of our most important wildlife populations and natural places are in poor condition, even at risk from disappearing – and it highlights our various wetlands, including peatbogs, and farmland wildlife that are those most in need of action.

    Restoring our uplands: good for carbon, good for water and good for wildlife (Ben Hall, RSPB-images.com)

    It’s good to see recognition of Biodiversity 2020, the Government’s plan to restore nature in England, and the need for concerted drive and resources to deliver its commitments to the Convention on Biological Diversity. Yet the reports raises serious questions about the progress we’re making on this, noting the serious lack of actual delivery towards the targets of three of the four Outcomes of the strategy.

    However, I think the report falls a little short of what’s required in the longer term. Yes, we need to stop the rot of our wildlife and thereby build resilience against climate change, yet we also need to plan ahead and help wildlife to adapt to climate change. We are already seeing the movement north of the natural ranges of a wide variety of animals and plants – at an average of around 17 kilometres a decade, which works out at a rather startling five metres every day. As I wrote recently (see here), we need to plan for this, to make sure wildlife finds suitable habitat in the new places where it will find favourable climate.

    The report recognises the contribution Countryside Stewardship, the new agri-environment scheme, could make to deliver coherent ecological networks help our wildlife move around the countryside. Yet we need a wider strategic approach to help wildlife cope with climate change and I hope we can build on this, in the development of the Government’s promised 25 year plan for biodiversity.

    I’ve written before (see here) about the damage being done to our uplands. So it’s good to see the Adaptation Sub-Committee recommend that Natural England takes action towards the widespread restoration of upland peat habitats, and investigate the knotty issue of burning in the uplands. I’ll have more to say on this a few days time. Other types of wetlands too are vulnerable to climate change. The ASC picks up that we are not on course for no net loss of coastal habitat, with losses from sea level rise and coastal squeeze, and the Environment Agency is charged to report on progress towards this for the next statutory report in 2017. By then we’ll have Wallasea Island established as a coastal wetland, another of the RSPB’s contributions to restoring coastal habitat alongside other benefits to people, in this case flood protection and recreation.

    So for wildlife, just as for flood protection and over-heating, the key message from the report is that we should fix the roof while the sun is shining – otherwise, the most vulnerable will suffer.

    We at the RSPB – and many of our partners – are already working on many of the answers.  Our work with United Utilities (here) shows how we can restore upland management to benefit water water quality, restore peatlands and help wildlife populations; working with the Enviornment Agency at Medmerry (here) on the south coast, we have shown how a new coastal defence scheme can also provide new intertidal habitat for wildlife; at Hope Farm (here) we continue to show that it is possible farm profitably while restoring populations of farmland birds and in Europe, we are working with electricity grid operators to show how to upgrade energy infrastructure without needless harm to the environment (see here).  Just as importantly, we are campaigning to defend the EU Nature Directives (see here) that allow wildlife to move with a changing climate - and more than a quarter of a million people have now supported this campaign.

    All of these are needed to make England’s wildlife and people resilient to climate change.  It’s clear from the report that sensible planning and investment now can protect us from the worst of climate change, but that we can’t wait any longer.   Now’s the time to get started.

    I congratulate all those involved in producing the report and I commend it to you...

  • We will if you will... use data to drive conservation action

    Man ‘flu has slowed me down this week.  And I was sorry, today, to miss Environment Secretary Liz Truss’ first major speech (see below) since the election.

    It was a very different sort of speech with the emphasis on Defra's role in collecting and disseminating data.

     The RSPB is a fan of good data, in fact evidence underpins everything we do.  Our Centre for Conservation Science works with organisations like the BTO to find out what’s happening to the natural world, to diagnose problems and then test solutions.

    Today, we reported the remarkable story of the tagged turtle dove named Titan which completed a 5,600km migration from Suffolk to Mali and back.  Understanding where our most threatened migrating bird goes helps us understand its conservation needs in its wintering grounds.  

    This is the same approach we have adopted for our threatened seabirds.  Through our tracking programme (see here), we have been able to identifying feeding grounds for species like gannets, kittiwakes and terns we’ve been able to inform designation of marine protected areas in Scotland (see image below) and continue to make the case across UK seas.  It also informs our engagement with development at sea (especially offshore wind farms).

    So, I am all for investment in good data collation and I hope that this means that in the next round of public spending cuts Defra’s research budget will be protected.  Yet, I am just as keen to hear Defra plans for using that data to inform conservation action.  There are some things that only governments can do such as establishing ambition, establishing and enforcing the law and providing the incentives to make it easy for people to do good things for nature.  

    I look forward to hearing more about this Government's plans to use these tools to full effect.  Perhaps it will become clearer as the process for developing the two 25 year plans (for nature and for food and farming) is revealed.  I was relieved that, in answer to a question today, Liz Truss confirmed that the 25 year farming strategy would outline about how it would contribute to restoring farmland wildlife.  The farming plan cannot neglect the quality of the natural environment and the sector needs to play its part in helping species like the turtle dove which return from Africa to breed in the English countryside.

    I also look forward to the nature conservation sector sharing its experience with Defra to say what we think needs to be included in the two 25 year plans.

    The Government itself needs to be clear about what, in addition to mobilising data, it will do to play its part in restoring nature.  Charities like the RSPB and the Wildlife Trusts will, of course, play their full part collecting and using data to drive conservation action on our own land and with others.  But we cannot do this on our own.

    The 25 year plans should becomes contracts between government, civil society and business each accountable for actions.

    Anything less and I fear that the data we continue to collect will simply document the ongoing decline in wildlife.

    For now, what did you think of Liz Truss' speech?

    It would be great to hear your views.

    ------------------------------------

    It’s great to be here with you here at Unruly.

    What am I doing here in the heart of Tech City? Isn’t Defra about cowsheds, flood barriers, and the great outdoors?

    Well, it is partly, I have to admit, because I want Unruly to open a branch in the heart of rural Britain. Last year, they opened in Singapore, they are already in LA, Seoul, Dubai and Paris. So why aren’t they in Camborne or Kendal? In more and more of the countryside, businesses are just as wired up as they are in London.

    And I am also here because Unruly has shown what you can achieve when you connect data, technology and ideas.

    The way it uses billions of pieces of data on consumer habits and reactions to online videos has opened a whole new front for marketing in the social media age.

    Just imagine what we could achieve if we could harness that potential in food, in the environment, in the countryside—think of the potential for bettering lives, for powering the economy and improving our environment.

    And I want us to pioneer that new world in those areas.

    Now of course government will always have a vital role dealing with age-old threats. It’s worrying about the risks of flooding and disease outbreaks that keeps me awake at night, just as it did my predecessors in the past—like the Cattle Plague Department, set up by the Home Office in 1865 to deal with an outbreak of rinderpest.

    Dealing with emergencies has long been a major responsibility for government—like getting the Thames cleaned up when the Great Stink of 1858 nearly forced parliament out of London; and a century later when the deaths of thousands in the Great Smog of 1952 led to the Clean Air Act.

    In this job you can sometimes feel like a cross between Noah and James Herriot.

    But sometimes that emergency mindset can mean the attitude to nature and food has been to ban, to control, and to certify.

    Not long ago, some staff at Defra were moving a cupboard and out toppled some old papers, some import certificates from the 1940s.

    That dusty cupboard was like a window in time, to an era of rationing, production targets, then the quotas and the butter mountains.

    From their oak-panelled offices, Secretaries of State would fix prices, sign off import permits, decree which parts of the country to plough up or, as one predecessor did, demand the pelts of 10 million moles for an export drive.

    That world does now lie behind us. Technology and globalisation have decentralised decisions and ideas. It is individuals now who do things and change things, not just ministers in Whitehall, and we need to unleash that spirit of enterprise. I believe the countries that succeed are the ones that give space for people to take the initiative and create the ideas that bring profit and progress.

    The economic opportunity of this is huge. There is a reason why Silicon Valley has invested more than $450m in the last two years in food start-ups; why the world’s most far-sighted investors, like Bill Gates and Li Ka-Shing, have spotted the opportunity; and there is a reason why environmental data and geospatial data are the top two categories of data in demand by companies, they are modern black gold.

    Global demand for food is projected to grow 60 per cent by 2050. Britain’s scientific know-how, flair for innovation and quality put us in a superb position to take advantage.

    I want us to be more successful at growing food exports than Ireland or New Zealand; I want us to be better than the US at opening up our data; and I want us to be more innovative than Israel or Estonia, both of which lead the world in digital government.

    By seizing the opportunities, we can become a truly one-nation economy, bringing the productivity of the countryside up to the levels of our towns and cities. Closing that 17% gap would by itself wipe out 15% of Britain’s productivity shortfall compared with the G7.

    Only last year, we launched a campaign in New York celebrating the British countryside. Its timeless beauty is recognised around the world, celebrated by artists and writers from Constable to the Brontes, from David Hockney to Antony Gormley. For centuries, this has made it a place people want to live.

    The countryside is both beautiful and a hive of activity and I want to secure its future as a healthy, thriving place of opportunity where working people want to live and bring up their families.

    A healthy natural environment and a healthy economy go hand in hand in today’s world. It is no accident that nature is improving most quickly in some of the most prosperous countries like Switzerland.

    And that as countries become wealthier, like China, they seek out the latest environmental innovations to prevent smog and clean up water supplies.

    For businesses, cutting waste and pollution means cutting costs. And by pinpointing application of pesticides and fertilisers, farmers spend less on chemicals and put less of them into the ground and into the air.

    Planting more trees and making our air cleaner are vital in themselves and are at the heart of our plans for improving the environment, but they are also crucial to today’s economy.

    Britain has the most beautiful, varied and evocative landscapes in the world.

    The vast skies and wild coasts of East Anglia; the mountains of the Lake District; the ancient woodlands perfect for getting lost in at the weekend; and the parks that are the green oases of our cities. Is there anywhere quite like Roundhay Park in Leeds?

    These places are our prize assets, just as much as the Severn Bridge, the Shard or Crossrail.

    They are integral to who we are, to why people want to live in Britain and to our future success as a country.

    Today’s world-beating economies are places that unleash entrepreneurs and idea, and I want the people who make their living from food, farming and the environment to have the freedom, the data, the research and the people to think big, to take risks and to build profitable businesses.

    I want to see new people and capital attracted into this area of huge potential to help drive our economy forward.

    The data revolution is powering wealth creation and innovation here in Tech City thanks to companies like Unruly.

    We’ve seen so many consumer industries turned around by data, unrecognisable from what they were before — Fashion with companies like Net a Porter, travel booking with Trip Advisor, taxis with Uber.

    And I want the jolt of energy these disruptors brought to their markets to fizz through food and farming, and the way we look at the natural environment.

    Defra has more broad, varied and rich data than any other government department.

    It’s not surprising when you consider that we have been tracking animal movements since the second world war, we’ve been monitoring the rural economy since Domesday, and since the 1940s, surveying family eating habits, like the arrival of spaghetti Bolognese.

    Earlier this week at Harwell in Oxfordshire where the satellite imagery from Copernicus is creating the world’s largest data store. On the day I was there, its latest satellite blasted off from French Guiana.

    Over the next year we will be making 8,000 datasets publicly available, in the biggest data giveaway that Britain has ever seen.

    Tech City people, developers, entrepreneurs, scientists, investors, NGOs, anyone with a great idea, will have full and open access.

    This has the potential to bring billions of pounds to our economy.

    And think what we can do with it. Wine lovers will be able to sip English bubbly made from the sweetest grapes because growers have found the best soild and slopes; canoeists will be able to check an app to see how fast their local rivier is flowing.

    Think also of the environmental improvements we can secure. I am proud that in our manifesto we made a commitment to protect sensitive marine areas around Britain and our overseas territories. In the Pitcairn Islands we will create the world’s biggest maritime nature reserve, protecting some of the planet’s most important species.

    At Harwell, I saw for myself the system that will allow us to detect live by satellite if any fishing vessel in the area is acting suspiciously. The same technology means that when shoppers buy their fish at Sainsbury’s they will know it has been tracked to sustainable sources. There are huge opportunities in the area of environmental protection.

    And think about how this will enable us as a government to do more for less. We will be able to survey the country’s crops without tramping the fields, meaning farmers get less bother from government inspectors.

    It means we can cut down on red tape and save money both for businesses and taxpayers. We are already doing that by reducing the number of farm inspections. We will cut duplication, ensuring farmers only have to deal with a single inspection force rather than numerous overlapping bodies.

    And as we draw up plans for improving the natural environment, including our air and water quality, think of the opportunity that data will bring—by sharing it with organisations like the RSPB and the Wildlife Trusts, we will enable them to monitor the health of our most precious places, and enthuse people, especially children, about the wonders of nature. I saw earlier this month how the Norfolk Wildlife Trust are doing exactly that at Cley Marshes on the county’s north coast, where they are rebuilding hundreds of acres of wetland in one of the world’s prime bird-watching locations.

    I think we can also harness the pioneers of Britain’s food revolution, like the chefs, farmers and Food Stars, the 50 innovative small producers we celebrated recently at Downing Street.

    I want food and farming to be a top destination for high-flying graduates, as prestigious as medicine, as fun and stimulating as the gaming industry and as cutting-edge as Tech City.

    And our reforms are producing some of the best schools anywhere. And we are going to treble the number of apprentices in food and farming over the course of the next five years.

    We already know the ambition and quality of food and drink in this country—and investors know it too. That is why one third of all of our foreign investment in UK manufacturing has gone into food and drink.

    Multinationals like Mondelez and Nestle carry out some of their most important global research in this country and Britain brings more new food and drink products to the market each year than France and Germany put together.

    From the precision-farming and hands-free tractors of Riviera Produce in Cornwall to the award-winning Poskitts carrots in Yorkshire, we already have some of the world’s best farmers.

    I want them to have access to the latest science and technology to raise productivity and our new Food Enterprise Zones—17 of them and counting—will take produce right from field to fork.

    I want us to have real ambition about how much food we can export. According to the CBI, Britain has the potential to export £7.4bn more a year, a 40% increase on what we are doing at the moment. People around the world know just how high our standards of quality, food safety and animal welfare are. We’re now ranked joint top alongside New Zealand, Austria and Switzerland by World Animal Protection.

    I want to see shopkeepers from Rio to Seoul stocking and selling the Great British brand.

    We will promote our superb food and drink through the new Great British Food Unit, open overseas markets, and place food counsellors in our embassies like we have in Beijing.

    Most of all, we are going to up our ambitions as a country with an industry-led 25-year food and farming plan.

    We know that in the future the countries that will be successful are the ones that unleash all the talents they have wherever they are to be found.

    The countryside is as good at generating new businesses as our towns and cities; it is home to a quarter of all our firms, yet only has 18% of our population. Computer programming and consultancy are among the fastest-growing professions there.

    This government is on the side of working people in the countryside. And it is my mission over the next five years to make it as easy to open a business in Shropshire as it is here in Shoreditch.

    That’s why it’s so important improving rural road and rail and bringing near-universal access to broadband and mobile. You can already see high-tech companies in Cornwall taking advantage of its position as Britain’s best-connected county to attract top-notch staff with the promise of a great beach lifestyle.

    Thanks to technology, wonderful local producers like Yorkshire Wensleydale Cheese and our booming craft cider industry like Perry’s Cider in Somerset, can sell direct to Japan. And we’ll make it easier for people to keep having those great drinks at their local pub. Our community pub loan fund will help groups wanting to buy their local.

    We are charging ever faster into the future, propelled by the forces of technology and globalisation.

    Never have the opportunities for our food and farming been greater and never has the natural environment been more important.

    Few countries in the world are as well placed as Britain to reap full advantage—we have some of the world’s greatest food and finest landscapes, some of its most far-sighted investors and most creative entrepreneurs.

    Over the past five years, we have seen Silicon Roundabout expand into what we see here today, Tech City. Over the next five years, I want to see its pioneering spirit spreading out further. I want to see Tech Country.

     

  • The Papal Gauntlet

    A few years ago I used to end a talk on climate change with an photo-shopped image of the Pope standing on a glacier.  My point was simple - we needed leaders (of both faith and secular organisations) to give a clear message about the threat posed by climate change.  My hope was that people around the world would listen and provide political leaders space to take action.  

    This was why I was so pleased to read the Pope's Encyclical, "Our Common Home", and delighted that it has received considerable media attention.  It is an extraordinary essay outlining the scale of the challenge, providing the diagnosis of the problem and offering a comprehensive package of solutions.  The timing felt good: it arrived a day after last week's climate lobby and a day before new research confirms that the Earth stands of the brink of its sixth mass extinction event.  

    Those without a faith may decide to to skip the religious passages, but there is a coruscating critique of the current response to our over-exploitation of the planet.  In paragraph 54 he writes, "The alliance between the economy and technology ends up sidelining anything unrelated to its immediate interests. Consequently the most one can expect is superficial rhetoric, sporadic acts of philanthropy and perfunctory expressions of concern for the environment, whereas any genuine attempt by groups within society to introduce change is viewed as a nuisance based on romantic illusions or an obstacle to be circumvented."

    He has laid down a papal gauntlet for the world's leaders to pick up.  Their first big tests will be to agree new Sustainable Development Goals and a binding climate change deal at the end of the year.

    Yet, leadership should also be judged by national action.  

    This is why, I look forward to receiving more detail about how the UK Government will align its climate change commitments to its manifesto commitments to develop two 25 year plans to a) to restore the UK’s biodiversity and b) food and farming.  It would be a wasted opportunity to have two plans developed independently.  The farming plan must, for example, be clear about it will support the commitment to restore farmland wildlife while reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

    My hope also is that the Natural Capital Committee whose life has been extended to at least the end of the next Parliament will have a role in both plans. 

    And, we'll also put our hand up to help.  

    Like others, we want to share our considerable experience.

    Whatever happens, the RSPB will continue its charitable mission to work with others to protect nature wherever it goes while also encouraging more people to get involved to "save our common home".