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
  • Our shared vision for the future of farming and the countryside

    Listening to the news this week, I’m beginning to wonder whether we will ever run out of words to prefix ‘Brexit’ with – hard Brexit, messy Brexit, soft Brexit, clean Brexit.  I know that Brexit is meant to mean Brexit, but after a while, given the complexities associated with leaving the EU, the word begins to lose all meaning.

    At the risk of adding to the prefix pile though, I would argue that, irrespective of the texture, what we desperately need is a green Brexit – one that helps rather than hinders our ability to restore wildlife in a generation and wean ourselves off fossil fuels in the fight against climate change.

    Today, with our partners WWF-UK, The Wildlife Trusts and the National Trust, we set our stall in one of the most important policy debates for nature, by outlining our vision for environment, farming and rural development policies to replace the Common Agriculture Policy.

    In this short document, we make the case that the countryside, and the nature that makes it so special, should be at the heart of future farm policies across the UK, and we set out five principles to inform how these should be developed.

    Mike Langman's artwork used in a South Downs farmland birds leaflet

    These should not be contentious. Who would argue against the idea that people want an attractive countryside rich in wildlife, giving us clean water, protecting us from flooding as well as providing good food to eat? Would anyone suggest that we don’t all have a stake in the future of our countryside, or that we shouldn’t strive to restore nature everywhere, for everyone to enjoy?

    Our departure from the European Union will be one of the most defining events for farming and the environment in living memory. Following hot on the heels of last month’s State of Nature report, we know that urgent action is needed to stem the declines of once common species such as skylark, brown hare, lapwing, corn bunting, corn marigold, cornflower, hedgehog and grey partridge.  If we are to achieve this, this farmers and land managers will be key.

    With over three quarters of the country farmed, farmers and land managers are uniquely placed to meet the challenges of restoring nature and capitalising on the opportunities this brings. But we need the future policies to do much more than the CAP has in the past. Despite the bright point of agri-environment schemes, and the notable successes these have provided, they have been too limited, primarily because they have only ever attracted around 20-25% of CAP spending (whose total UK annual budget is about £3.1 billion).

    If we are to make a success of Brexit for nature, we will need future environment, farming and rural development policies to drive restoration of nature across countryside. We need to support sustainable farming that not only produces great food, but also rewards farmers and land managers for maintaining and restoring the farmed environment.

    Some will try to convince politicians and public that this is a choice between food and nature; that farmers can be either stewards of the land or food producers, but not both. Today, we reject this false choice, and those who peddle it.

    The future of food, farming and nature is inextricably linked – in a crowded country, we need farmers to give nature a home, and the long-term sustainability of food production depends upon natural resources such as soils, water and the services provided by pollinating insects.  And, I know many farmers that are up for the challenge of trying to do both.  At our intensive arable farm in Cambridgeshire - Hope Farm - we have maintained wheat yield while increasing key farmland bird populations by 190% since acquiring the farm in 2000.

    This debate is only just getting going but things will hot up pretty quickly as demonstrated by Greenpeace’s intervention this week about who receives farm payments. 

    The UK Government has signed up to some very ambitious UN sustainable development goals and biodiversity targets and they oblige us to halt the loss of biodiversity and create genuinely sustainable farming by the end of the decade. 

    So, the opportunity to create policies that drive truly sustainable land management is not one we can afford to miss. One of our asks to Government today is create an independent Policy Commission to examine future policy options, and engage the public and stakeholders in an open and inclusive way. Regardless of where you sit or what your position is, we will need to work together if we are to achieve a countryside rich in nature alongside vibrant communities and a thriving food and farming sector.  

    What guiding principles do you think should govern our future agriculture and land use policy?

    It would be great to hear your views.

  • Asian hornet alert and a call for help

    In response to the news of the arrival of the Asian Hornet, my colleague Paul Walton, who leads our work on invasive non-native species, offers this reaction.

    Surely the social insects – bees, ants, wasps and termites – are among the most astounding of all species. In these animals we have socially cooperative rearing of young, the ordered division of labour within a colony, and reproduction restricted to a small number of queens and reproductive males, with the majority of individuals living and working alongside their sisters purely in the interests of the colony collective. It almost defies belief.


    Image courtesy of Jean Haxaire

    Not only this, but these insects are of critical ecological importance as pollinators, soil engineers and as food for other animals. And beyond that, the economic significance of crop pollination services by bees alone stands at more than £200 million per year in the UK[1]. Little wonder that, for many, these insects have come to embody and symbolise our affection and concern for our natural environment.

    The human impact on the natural world is profound and, often, bewildering. Consensus has emerged, however, around the recognition of five key basic drivers: pollution; climate change; habitat degradation; overexploitation; and the impact of invasive non-native species.

    The last of these is perhaps the most difficult to grasp. Is adding new species to the environment really such an issue? The answer is perhaps not in every single instance but, collectively, most emphatically yes. Natural barriers to species dispersal – oceans, currents, deserts, mountains etc. – exist across the world and force species, habitats and ecosystems to develop differently in different regions. We end up with antelope as plains grazers in Africa, and kangaroos as plains grazers in Australia - and this effect plays out across the living world. A high proportion of living diversity, our shared natural inheritance, is generated and maintained by this simple effect. However, human beings are now moving species across these barriers, either deliberately via trade and transport, or accidentally as hitchhikers or stowaways. The loss of species and disruption of habitats on a massive scale is the result.

    Research suggests that, sometime around 2004, containers of pottery from China arrived at the port of Bordeaux. Hidden in the shipment were queen Asian hornets, native of South Asia. The insects escaped into the wild and started to reproduce. In just 5 years there were several thousand nests in the Bordeaux area, the species had established in northern Spain by 2010, and by the end of 2015 Asian hornets were reported over most of France.

    Now, the species has arrived in the UK, with workers spotted in Gloucestershire for the first time this September. A nest has not been found yet, but intensive efforts are underway to locate it.

    Is this an issue? Based on assessments so far, and evidence from France, it’s certainly likely to be an important one. Asian hornets feed, quite naturally, on other insects. This includes honey bees, so critically important as pollinators and, more significantly from a conservation standpoint, native species such as bumblebees. The introduction of new predators can have major impacts on native wildlife. We do not know for sure what these might be in reality, but the potential for major ecological, not to mention socio-economic impacts is real.

    There is hope, however. Working under the GB Non-native Species Strategy, officials are working to find and eradicate the hornets before they can spread. If the nests can be detected at the early stages of invasion, there is a real chance that we can prevent the establishment of Asian hornets in the UK – and thus defend wildlife.

    A key element of that task will be maximum vigilance from everyone who spends time out of doors. The more eyes we have looking out for Asian hornets, and reporting any potential sightings to the GB Non-native Species Secretariat, the higher our chances of success in containing the spread. The Secretariat is calling for people to report potential sightings and, in particular, to send in photographs of any suspected Asian hornets that are seen.

    Suspected sightings can be reported by email to:

    alertnonnative@ceh.ac.uk

    or through the online reporting form

      http://www.brc.ac.uk/risc/alert.php?species=asian_hornet

    Officials are also developing an Asian Hornet app for recording which will be available on the App Store shortly.

    Links to ID sheets and posters are here: 

    https://secure.fera.defra.gov.uk/nonnativespecies/downloadDocument.cfm?id=646

    https://secure.fera.defra.gov.uk/nonnativespecies/downloadDocument.cfm?id=872

    Three crucial considerations before we all proceed with our eyes open for this new arrival.

    First, make sure to check the identification information before sending in a report.  Asian hornets are actually somewhat smaller than the native European hornet and can be distinguished by their yellow ‘feet’, orange ‘face’ and dark thorax and abdomen.  They can be confused with native hornets, hoverflies and wood wasps. 

    Secondly, remember that this is absolutely not a call to despise or destroy all wasps and hornets. Any suspected Asian hornets should be reported, not tackled, and any native species should be left in peace. Though these native insects might irritate us sometimes, and occasionally sting, they play important roles in our ecosystems and are valuable wildlife species in their own right. 

    Thirdly, we should all remember that it is not the Asian hornets’ fault that they are here and may cause damage. These insects are simply doing what comes naturally. This is an entirely human-generated problem, and it is up to us to fix it if we can.

    In the end, the crucial lesson is that we must all be much smarter about how we move animals and plants around the world. If we are not, problems like the Asian hornet can only get worse in the future. For now, though, we all have a chance to play a part in stopping the spread of one problem species in our country, protecting the amazing diversity of wildlife around us. Thanks for your help.


    [1] http://www.bbka.org.uk/kids/importance_of_bees

  • On the road for this year's party conference season: second stop Liverpool with the Labour Party

    Since hearing the EU referendum result in the early hours of 24 June, I have felt that we need to be at our best to ensure Brexit works for nature and for people.

    And, when I say ‘we’, I mean the RSPB, other NGOs and, of course, politicians from all parties.

    The headlines in the State of Nature report launched with Sir David Attenborough ten days ago provided a stark reminder of the scale of the challenge that the UK Government faces in meeting its ambition to restore biodiversity in a generation (as well as its commitments to the UN’s sustainable development goals and biodiversity targets).

    The Brexit vote has clearly created jeopardy and opportunity.  In this unpredictable period there are few things that are certain.  But we do know that the UK Government’s ambition for nature – shared, I believe by all the major political parties – will be unattainable unless it does at least three things...

    ...maintain or bolster existing levels of environmental protection

    ...guard against the intensification of natural resource use

    ...continue to play our part in tackling issues that transcend national boundaries such as decline in migratory species and climate change.

    While in Liverpool for the second party conference of the 2016 season, this is the conversation that we want to have with the Labour Party.

    A left-leaning robin courtesy of Ray Kennedy (rspb-images.com)

    Following the results of the leadership election on Saturday, Jeremy Corbyn remains in charge.  All weekend, there were broad calls for unity and acceptance of the leadership result with Deputy Tom Watson saying that they were ‘getting the band back together’ after a summer apart.

    While media attention will be given to which MPs join the Shadow Cabinet, I am much more interested in what the party is going to say on the environment and how they do their job, as the official Opposition, in holding the UK Government to account for its environmental performance. 

    During the campaign Jeremy Corbyn made ten pledges, one of which focuses on “Action to secure our environment”.  This includes “keeping to Paris climate agreement, and moving to a low-carbon economy and green industries, in part via national investment bank”.  Speaking to SERA, the Labour environmental campaign, Mr Corbyn also said “For me, the environment is not an afterthought” and went on to highlight environmental protections, fracking and climate change as key priorities for the environment.

    This is a good platform for those Labour MPs prepared to use their political voices for nature.  

    Last night, at our joint event with WWF and The Wildlife Trusts, Rachael Maskell MP, the Shadow Environment Secretary (and species champion for the tansy beetle), spoke alongside Mary Creagh MP, chair of the Environmental Audit Committee and a reknowned campaigner on environmental issues banning microbeads (which was ultimately successful).  Both gave a robust defence of the Labour party's record on the environment (referencing legislation they passed to protect our finest wildlife sites, to conserve the marine environment and to tackle climate change) argued to retain the provisions of the EU Birds and Habitats Directive and wanted to build a new consensus for how we should achieve our environmental ambitions.

    This was good stuff.

    Yet, I left feeling that we will only make progress if the environmental champions within each of the parties are prepared to take a stand and ensure that the environment is a mainstream concern for their party.  There are others, such as fellow species champions Kerry McCarthy (swift); Angela Smith (hen harrier); Daniel Zeichner (ruderal bee) who are strong advocates and it is pleasing that to date, 35 Labour MPs have also signed the Environment pledge.

    As I hope for all political parties, the Labour party needs to be at its best in the weeks ahead.  All decision-makers must ensure that some of their finite creative energy needed for the Brexit process is focused on making it harder for people to harm nature and easier for people to do good things for nature.

    Those of us working in charities will, of course, join forces to do what we can to make it desirable for politicians to act.  But we also need leadership from within the political establishment.  It will only be when we work together that we can have confidence that we can improve the state of nature.