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
  • The RSPB and grouse shooting

    Over the past week I have been contacted by many people through a variety of media about the RSPB’s position on grouse shooting.

    It’s fair to say that I have had a mixed response – some offering full support (which is much appreciated), while others wishing we would back the call for a ban (these are also appreciated, especially the polite ones). A flavour of the critique is captured in the comments on Friday's blog but some of the criticisms that we have received (usually via twitter) have been, let’s say, more blunt.

    So, I thought that it would be useful to share a few insights into our position.

    The RSPB is an evidence-based organisation but also one with values. Our values reflect our charitable objectives to undertake conservation for the public good.

    For example, we are supportive of renewable energy in the fight against climate change, but we oppose developments that will impact on wildlife populations and important habitats. On the other hand, we are against airport expansion unless or until it can be demonstrated that a growth in capacity will be consistent with obligations to greenhouse gas reduction targets.

    Equally, we are neither for or against organic or farming that uses pesticides or even GM crops. We care about the impact that those farming practices have on the natural environment and we work with any farming system to help recover farmland wildlife populations.

    We are also neutral on the ethics of shooting but we do care about the environmental consequences of that activity.

    And the growing evidence of the environmental impact of ever intensive driven grouse shooting led us in 2012 to conclude that self-regulation of this industry had failed and so we would advocate a licensing system designed to reduce the negative impacts.

    Others, including two of the RSPB’s Vice-Presidents and my predecessor, Mark Avery, would like us to go further and are calling for a ban on driven grouse shooting.

    I have doubts as to the viability of such a proposition but I respect their position, even though I disagree with it. What I do not respect, is the drip-drip of scorn that is levelled at the RSPB about our position and our wider work to protect birds of prey.

    On this issue and in this job, I have learnt not to get riled by comments but when people have implied over the past week that we do not have the courage to support a ban on grouse shooting, I take exception.

    To me, courage is staying up all night protect a hen harrier nest. Courage is managing a nature reserve next to an intensively managed grouse shoot, where the gamekeepers of the neighbouring estate patrol the borders, yes with guns. Courage is installing cameras on estates where bird of prey crime is thought to happen in the hope of catching the criminals in the act. Courage is appearing in a witness stand in the face of a defence lawyer who attacks both the evidence and the character of the person providing it.

    This is the courage that RSPB staff and volunteers demonstrate again and again. And I will go further and suggest that courage is looking your friends at Natural England in the eye and telling them that they were wrong to enter into an ill-conceived management agreement with Walshaw Moor Estate and that this would trigger a legal challenge.

    It also takes courage when members of the shooting community speak out against others who need to improve the way their shooting estates are managed.

    I think that change is coming. In Scotland, the Government is seriously considering whether to introduce a licensing system for driven grouse shooting. This is long overdue but would be a welcome step.

    Given our neutrality on the ethics of shooting, we do not make a judgement about the rights or wrongs of people driving red grouse across a moor to be shot (provided it does not affect the conservation status of red grouse).  We focus our efforts on the environmental damage caused by grouse shooting: the peatlands that are damaged by burning, the water that is polluted, the predators that are illegal killed. We believe that a licensing system, a reformed approach to consenting burning on peatlands, restoration of these special sites coupled with better enforcement and tougher penalties for wildlife crime can address these issues. And we will work with anyone to make this happen and give credit when and where it is due.

    As I have written previously, if the economics of any business – including grouse shooting – was dependent on environmentally unsustainable practices, then I would argue that it was time for that business to change.

    I do not expect that this blog will change the minds of those that support a ban – indeed, that is not my motivation. To those that do not like our position because you want us to support a ban, I at least ask you to respect our position. To those that do not like it because it challenges your sport, I ask that you look at the growing public concern associated with your sport and encourage you to seek reform from within the shooting community.

    If you have any comments on this blog, as ever, it would be great to hear your views.

  • England's moors: an update on this burning issue

    Four years ago I announced that the RSPB had taken the serious step of making a formal complaint to the European Commission raising our profound concerns at the state of our finest designated wildlife sites in the North English moorlands -  sites  protected on paper as Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) and Special Protection Areas (SPAs) but which have been failing to deliver for nature for too long.

    Our complaint related specifically to the failure of DEFRA, through its statutory agency Natural England, to take adequate measures to tackle serious and persistent damage to one site in particular, Walshaw Moor in the South Pennines. Subsequently the complaint broadened to cover the other Northern English moorland SACs - focussing on the issue of burning the heather and vegetation on the areas of deep peat soils – soils that should be supporting healthy blanket bog and the wildlife that depends on it. 

    The management of many of these places has been intensifying in order to produce more and more red grouse to support the driven grouse shooting industry see here, a land use that has shaped our hills, influenced some of our most iconic landscapes and had significant impacts on our wildlife throughout many decades stretching back into the 19th Century.

    Today we have learned that our complaint and a separate complaint submitted by Ban the Burn have led to the European Commission beginning legal action against the UK Government by issuing a Letter of Formal Notice.  This is the starting gun of a full infraction procedure when the Commission considers a Member State has not applied the relevant laws properly. From the limited information we have it appears that the Commission share our wider concerns over bad application of the Habitats Directive with respect to the blanket bog habitats that are meant to be conserved by SACs in England.  We will update our page dealing with this case (see here) later today.

    We welcome this move wholeheartedly. These are serious matters and much is at stake. 


    Moor burn by Andy Hay (


    For anyone following these issues over the last four years it will not have escaped your notice that positions have become entrenched. This has manifested itself by, on one hand, repeated calls and petitions to ban driven grouse shooting in England and on the other vigorous defence of the role driven grouse shooting plays and especially the 'benefits' of burning. 

    We want a resolution. 

    We have been calling for reform of the way our hills are managed with proper regulation of an industry whose unfettered ambitions to produce ever higher red grouse numbers for the gun are causing growing concern over the direct and indirect  impacts on wildlife, including hen harriers and other raptors, the ability of our moorlands to cope with increasing rainfall and to play a part in reducing the risk of catastrophic floods downstream, and the impact on  deep peat soils that lock up carbon and prevent its release into the atmosphere and into our drinking water. 

    Over the coming days we will see an intensification of the rhetoric from both perspectives. I fully anticipate repeated and sustained pressure for the RSPB to join calls for a ban. 

    That is not our position. 

    We will probably hear more from our critics, funded by backers linked to the grouse industry, who wish to deflect us from our purposeful work.  Will these be direct or via the pages of supportive newspapers? 

    But now through the Hen Harrier Action Plan and this European Commission led process there is a chance of real progress. The challenge is now with DEFRA, Natural England and the driven grouse industry to respond constructively to the growing evidence that change is needed, and to do so positively - we will be returning to this critical issue regularly both here on my blog and on Saving Special Places

    And I want to hear from you. If you are frustrated that the RSPB is not supporting calls for a ban or if you are outraged that decades of traditional management for grouse are being challenged by our actions or if you are in a place where you see scope for a constructive way forward please let me know your views.

    Walshaw Moor from the air

  • "Suit the action to the word, the word to the action": a message to the Welsh Government over the Gwent Levels

    "Suit the action to the word, the word to the action" [1] should be the guide for all politicians and is especially apt in Wales at the moment.

    Let me explain.   

    Last week, I heard an excellent talk from Andy Fraser from the Welsh Government outlining the good things that have been happening in the Welsh Assembly lately...

    ...the Well-being of Future Generations Act which set public bodies in Wales seven goals including one to make a resilient Wales, with a biodiverse natural environment and healthy functioning ecosystems and another to create a globally responsible Wales with sustainable development at the heart of decision-making.

    ...the Environment (Wales) Act which established the principles of sustainable management of natural resources as the purpose of Natural Resources Wales (the Welsh statutory body for the environment) and introducing mandatory emission reduction targets for greenhouse gases in Wales of at least 80% by 2050.

    All this sounds very seductive: biodiverse natural environments, healthy functioning ecosystems, sustainable development principles, reducing emissions and sustainable management of natural resources.

    It is, therefore, highly disappointing that right now the Welsh Government is consulting on draft Orders to divert a six-lane motorway through the heart of the beautiful Gwent Levels. If the scheme gets the go ahead the M4 motorway will be directed straight through four Sites of Special Scientific Interest which protect vulnerable habitats and species such as the water vole, shrill carder bee as well lapwings, otters and the great silver water beetle.

    Gwent Levels by David Wootton (

    The Welsh Government is quick to congratulate itself for passing “world leading legislation” on well-being and the environment. And there is much to be admired. But we can’t measure a government on the words in legislation it passes. It has to be judged on its actions.

    In spite of the progress made, highly damaging and wildly expensive projects like the M4 motorway diversion are still going ahead. If we’re truly thinking about the well-being of future generations and the environment then ploughing six lanes of tarmac through sites protected for nature shouldn't even be considered.

    All is not lost. 

    There is something that we can all do though. The Welsh Government is consulting on its M4 plans and anyone in the UK can ask for it to be cancelled. The RSPB is taking a lead and has produced an easy online tool to register your objection.

    All you need to do is click here, add your details and personalise your response if you like. Thousands of people have already taken part and I hope you can spend just a minute of your time to add your voice. We want the Welsh Government to turn the fine words of its new legislation into tangible action and protect the unique Gwent Levels for nature and for future generations.

    [1] From Hamlet, act 3, scene 2 to mark the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare