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
  • Brexit implications for wildlife friendly farming: long-term opportunity, short-term jeopardy

    In the white noise of the past couple of weeks you may have missed the publication of the latest Breeding Bird Survey results which showed turtle dove numbers have hit a new low, declining by 93% since 1994. This trend is mirrored across Europe, with a decline of 78% between 1980 and 2013.

    As many of you will know, this is a species that is facing threats on migration and on its wintering grounds, but it has, like many other birds, also been affected by agricultural changes on its breeding grounds.  This is why through Operation Turtle Dove the RSPB and its partners are carrying out a range of targeted actions including promoting turtle dove friendly land management to farmers through agri-environment schemes (paid for through the EU Common Agriculture Policy).

    From the recovery of species, to the creation of habitats, planting of trees, maintenance of iconic landscapes and action to mitigate flood risk and address water quality, these agri-environment schemes have been pivotal to terrestrial conservation efforts and broader environmental land management. They have engaged farmers in more sustainable models of production, demonstrated the potential for more effective approaches to farm support and provided value for money to taxpayers across the UK.

    And yet, all of this has been called into question by Brexit.

    Andy Hay's image of Hope Farm research trial (

    As I wrote in my open letter to the new Secretary of State, Andrea Leadsom MP, on Friday, the uncertainty associated with Brexit means that these agri-environment schemes are now on hold as Defra and the Treasury figure out whether they want to carry 100% of the costs for these 5 to 10 years agreements once we leave the EU.   

    This demands urgent attention from the new Defra Ministerial team, which as of yesterday includes Therese Coffey MP, who replaces Rory Stewart MP as Biodiversity Minister.  I am confident that the new Minister will grasp the seriousness of the issue given that she is species champion for the bittern and so no stranger to species conservation priorities.

    Without incentives to encourage wildlife-friendly farming, governments across the UK will not just fail to meet their environmental commitments – such as those driven by the Convention on Biological Diversity or the country biodiversity strategies – they will go backwards. Farms will fall out of agreement, habitats will no longer be managed, and species conservation efforts will be fatally undermined. For species like the turtle dove that’s teetering on the edge of extinction, this could sign its death warrant as a breeding bird in the UK.

    In England alone, between now and 2019/2020, over 4600 Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) agreements will expire. If the new scheme is effectively discontinued now, that’s over 4600 farmers who have invested their time and effort let down, and millions of pounds of taxpayer’s money wasted. It would undermine the confidence of the farming community in the concept of environmental land management, and scupper any chances of taking the opportunities that a post-Brexit agriculture policy could offer.

    As a quick example, our farm – Hope Farm - in Cambridgeshire is in an Entry Level Stewardship (ELS) agreement that expires in September 2017, slap bang in the middle of a potential Brexit no man’s land. Without Defra continuing with the new scheme in England, Countryside Stewardship, the management that has led to a 200% increase in breeding birds on the farm would be left unsupported. We’ll of course carry it on, but for many farmers in a similar position, to do so would not be economically viable.

    While I do see real opportunity for reforming agriculture policy once we have left the EU, there is real jeopardy now. 

    Thousands of farmers have completed or requested application packs this year. If we are not to derail all of the potential good work these applications represent, we need firm statements from governments across the UK that they are committed to these schemes for the foreseeable future. We don’t have time to lose if the Government is to meet its manifesto commitment of restoring UK biodiversity within 25 years.

  • An open letter to the new Environment Secretary, Andrea Leadsom MP

    Dear Secretary of State,

    Welcome to the best job in Whitehall. 

    People love the landscapes and wildlife of this country but nature is in trouble: one in ten UK species are at risk of extinction and the pressures are growing. 

    You have the opportunity and responsibility to do something about it by fulfilling the Conservative Party manifesto commitment “to restore UK biodiversity within 25 years”. 

    We appreciate you will arrive to a big “to do list”, so here are our suggestions for what you might want to achieve within your first week, your first month and by Christmas. 

    This week

    The most urgent issue in your in-tray will be to secure the backing of the new Chancellor, Phillip Hammond, to continue the Government’s financial support for protecting nature through agreements with land managers and farmers, known as ‘agri-environment schemes’.

    These schemes have saved many species from the brink of extinction including cirl bunting, corncrake, stone curlew and supported re-introductions such as the short-haired bumblebee. 

    Andy Hay's image of an adult cirl bunting (

    The immediate impact of Brexit has been to bring uncertainty over whether the UK Government will fulfil its commitment to existing and future agri-environment schemes and other critical  environmental funding currently received from the EU. Given both the commitment in the Conservative election manifesto commitment to spend £3 billion from the Common Agricultural Policy to enhance England’s countryside” as well as your own statement in March this year that the “UK Government will absolutely continue in the short term to provide those subsidies whilst we think about what makes sense” we are sure that this will be your top priority too.

    Keeping agri-environment schemes going across the UK - and cooperating with devolved administrations to do so - will be a key  to maintaining our natural environment and protecting British wildlife.  Certainty on this issue is needed now in order for farmers to have the clarity and confidence to proceed with applications that are currently sat waiting in the farm office.

    Next month

    The next urgent issue in your in-tray will be to consider the environmental implications of leaving the European Union – particularly with reference to the laws that protect nature which are derived from EU legislation such as the Birds and Habitats Directives (see our Defend Nature campaign) but also sectoral policies for agriculture and fisheries.

    There is jeopardy and opportunity here for wildlife.

    On the one hand the loss of the Habitat Regulations – proven to increase the populations of threatened species - would result in reduced protection of 80% of our finest wildlife sites.  To fulfil the Conservative election manifesto commitment “to protect ... Sites of Special Scientific Interest and other environmental designations” you will therefore need to engage closely with the new Secretary of State for Leaving the European Union, David Davis, to consider how environmental protections and their implementation can be strengthened as we negotiate a new relationship with the EU27.

    On the other hand, you have an opportunity to shape a public debate about how best to support land management that is good for farmers, good for people and good for the environment.  We would encourage...

    ...a shift away from a focus on direct subsidies with few strings attached, towards a policy that supports progressive, innovative farmers, providing them with the certainty to engage in more sustainable production

    ...public money being focused on the environmental challenges that farmers are uniquely placed to meet, such as the conservation of species, restoration of habitats and natural flood risk management. This should build on the progress already made through agri-environment schemes and rural development programmes across the UK

    ...a transition period toward new arrangements that allows time for farmers and land managers to adapt, and for new policies to be piloted. This is particularly important for the most economically vulnerable farmers, such as those in our extensive livestock sector, who are often farming in marginal, but high nature value areas.

    By Christmas

    I hope that you will have begun to put flesh on the bones of your 25 year plan for the environment, demonstrating how land and sea can be well managed for both people and wildlife.  There are many organisations including the RSPB that are keen to share their experience on what works.  We are keen to help you develop a plan with the right mix of laws, incentives and public engagement so that you will be confident that you will be providing a legacy for future generations of ensuring life will be returning to our land and seascapes.

    RSPB Haweswater, being restored with our landlord, United Utilities

    This will also help you on the international stage as in December, you will have the opportunity to participate in the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity.  It would be great for you and great for the UK to be able to report on progress that the UK has made in halting the loss of biodiversity at home, on our overseas territories and internationally.  It is an opportunity to raise the political stakes for and inject much needed urgency into global action for wildlife.

    And finally...

    Please do take time out in your new role to see some wildlife.  We would be happy to show you some of the work we are doing with others to put life, sound and colour back into our landscapes.  Not only will this inspire you but it will also help you remain resilient when you face major challenges for which Defra is responsible such as disease, invasive species and floods...     

    Rest assured, the RSPB is here to help you be a success for nature.

    I wish you well in your new role.

    Martin Harper

    Conservation Director, RSPB

  • An English perspective on the new petition to license gamebird hunting in Scotland

    Yesterday, the Scottish Raptor Study Group successfully lodged a petition with the Scottish Parliament calling for the introduction of a licensing system for gamebird hunting in Scotland. This is a good initiative and one the RSPB fully supports as it offers the potential for meaningful action to reform shooting.

    The petitioning process in Scotland is very different to the one operating south of the border.  In order for a petition even to be posted it needs to jumps through a few hoops. As a consequence, although the petition is only open until 22 August 2016, irrespective of how many signatures it gets, it will then be considered by the Petitions Committee of the Scottish Parliament and by the Environment Committee.  They then propose recommendations based on their findings.  Clearly we are hopeful that a concrete proposal to reform ‘gamebird hunting’ will emerge.

    These petitions are really only open to Scottish residents so if you live in Scotland, please do considering adding your name.

    South of the border, the political dust is still floating around Westminster following the EU Referendum.   No-one seems particular sure how things will land - although we do at least now know that we shall have a new Prime Minister in Number 10 tomorrow night.  But once the dust settles, we’ll look for opportunities to push licensing in England as well.  

    Why do we think reform is necessary?

    Image courtesy of Dom Greves

    I have written extensively about the failure of self-regulation of driven grouse shooting as well as the environmental consequences of intensive grouse moor management (for example here, here and here).

    Yet of all of the problems associated with grouse shooting, there is one issue that stands out above all others and that is the continued illegal killing of birds of prey.

    Despite the best efforts of enforcement agencies, often supported by the brilliant RSPB investigations team, the current legal system has failed to end the illegal killing of birds of prey.   For species like hen harrier, illegal persecution remains the primary reason for hen harrier‘s continuing scarcity.

    This year, there have been a series of worrying incidents, such as the apparent use of hen harrier decoys in the Peak District and setting of pole traps in the vicinity of a hen harrier on another estate, the disappearance of the hen harrier ‘Chance’, as well as a series of further incidents of which we are aware and which are working their way through the legal system.

    Despite lots of words spoken by those representing moorland shooting, there appears to have been no change in behaviour.  This is why we need a licensing system to provide a more effective stick to bring those people who still persecute birds of prey to book.

    I have previously outlined the principles of a licensing system.  While there’s a huge amount of detail that would need to go into drafting a new system, in essence it is really quite simple.  What it says is “you absolutely can run your shoot as you see fit, but if you don’t abide by the rules society sets, that privilege will be taken away”. This seems to me absolutely fair and proportionate. 

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

    Good 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 shift in attitudes and potentially secure a future for their sport.

    As I write this, I can see a buzzard circling on a thermal outside of my window.  Buzzards, like red kites and marsh harriers have experienced a remarkable recovery in my life time. While things may look bleak for hen harriers right now, experience demonstrates that change can happen and that the future can be different from the past.  Licensing represents the best next step to helping hen harriers join the list of raptor success stories.

    And talking of things looking bleak, in a moment of madness I have agreed to run this year’s Great North Run on 11 September 2016.  I shall be doing so to raise the funds for the RSPB's Investigations Team who work to tackle illegal killing of birds of prey.  I will add 50% of any money raised, but will double the donation if I run it over an hour and forty five minutes.  If you would like to sponsor me, you can do so here.