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
  • Reflections on the Game Fair

    It was roasting hot at the CLA Game Fair in Blenheim on Friday.   My failure to invest in a light linen suit and rely instead on my black chords meant that I suffered.   

    I participated in the afternoon debate questioning whether the rural economy needs shooting or angling.  The stimulus for the session was a recent update of a report first published in 2006, "The Value of Shooting" (here), by the Public and Corporate Economic Consultants (PACEC) on behalf of a range of shooting organisations.  I was joined on the panel by Rhodri Thomas from Strutt and Parker, Richard Ali, CEO of BASC, Howard Davies, CEO of the Association of AONBs and the event was chaired by Alistair Balmain, editor of Shooting Times.

    I gave two answers to the question: a simple one which not many in the audience particularly liked and a slightly more sophisticated response which probably divided the audience.

    My simple answer was at that if you stuck to maths, the rural economy could survive and flourish with other land uses. 

    For example, if your prime objective was to maximise economic output you'd probably invest in rural broadband: it is estimated that for every £1 of public investment, broadband generates £20 in net economic impact.  

    Shooting is carried out over 80% of rural Britain much of which is supported by £3billion CAP subsidy.  The £2 billion shooting purports to generate works out at about £130 per hectare.  A reductionist argument would say that RSPB reserves are more economically beneficial providing £500 per hectare.  So, you could go further say and improve the rural economy by turning the countryside into one big RSPB nature reserve - utopia for some, a nightmare for others.

    My slightly more sophisticated response suggested that it was right for the PACEC report to look at the environmental and social contribution of shooting as well. 

    While not the subject of the PACEC report, angling is also hugely popular with nearly 3 million people taking part (an estimated 50,000 RSPB fish).  More often that not, the interests of angling and fishing converge which is why we spend so much time working in partnership with organisations like the Angling Trust and the Salmon and Trout Association.

    Shooting is also clearly popular: 600,000 people in the UK shoot.  And clearly land over which shooting is carried out does some good things for wildlife...

    ...management of woodland for some pheasant shoots can improve species diversity

    ...some farmers, who run shoots, have achieved great things for wildlife supported by agri-environment schemes

    ...many of our Nature of Farming Award finalists manage farms with shoots on them 

    ...and of course some birds flourish in the uplands where grouse moor management is prevalent

    Yet, a proper assessment of value of any sector must look at the costs as well as the benefits.  And when it come to the environmental costs of shooting, I am afraid I become a little bit like former US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld:

    There are known “knowns”.  For example, driven grouse shooting is associated with negative environmental impacts: just ten percent of the 162,000 hectares of blanket bog designated as SSSI are in favourable condition, inappropriate management leads to a deterioration in water quality (with associated treatment costs) water contamination and increase in greenhouse gas emissions and illegal killing of birds of prey, including golden eagle, hen harrier, red kite, peregrine falcons and goshawks, continues in some areas.

    There are also some known “unknowns”.  For example, we still do not know what the environmental impact of releasing c50 million game birds a year into the countryside.  This amounts to something like 55,000 tonnes of gamebirds versus an estimated total biomass of wild birds in the UK of 19,500 tonnes.  The quantity of gamebirds released appears to have increased by nearly 25% in the past decade. And we seem to know precious little about the potential impacts of the increasing use of veterinary medicines to treat grouse on the wider environment.

    Given the trend to more intensive land management, it is unsurprising that we think that more needs to be done to improve the balance sheet of shooting.

    While the debate itself was inconclusive and subsequent conversations were good natured, the difference of opinion centres on what to do when environmental damage occurs.  Self-regulation is no longer viable when public goods are damaged by private activity.  Which is why, in the uplands, we have called for the introduction of a licensing system to govern grouse shooting.  In the lowlands, we need to know more about the consequences of releasing large quantities of gamebirds.  With knowledge you can take action. 

    It is in the interests of shooting to demand high standards across all parts of the shooting community and to improve our understanding of its environmental impact.  I hope that when the Game Fair marquees, linen suits and hats are packed away for another year, this is where the shooting community focuses its attention.

  • Towards a brighter future for hen harriers and our uplands

    The CLA's Game Fair takes place this weekend. As ever, the RSPB will be there, inspiring others to do more for wildlife and no doubt being challenged about our stance on one of two things as well.

    I'll be there on Friday and am speaking in a debate on whether the rural economy can survive without shooting and fishing. I'll let you know how I get on.

    The theme of our stand this year is how some shoot managers in the lowlands are managing shoots sustainably to help wildlife – and we’re delighted that some of them will be joining us on our stand to spread the word.

    Male hen harrier. Photo by Andy Hay (www.rspb-images.com)

    As with any sector – housebuilders, minerals companies, farmers, foresters and, yes, those in the shooting community – I am keen that we work with the progressives, those land managers working within the natural capacity of the environment to demonstrate what can be done to reconcile the needs of both humans and wildlife.

    Given the parlous state of nature in the UK – 60% of species for which we have trend data have declined in my lifetime - we need the progressives in each sector to set high environmental standards which others can follow.

    Inevitably, the question arises, what happens when others do not meet the standards and environmental damage occurs?

    This is something that we face in the uplands with driven grouse shooting – the most intensive form of shooting. Here, our calls for voluntary reform to tackle illegal persecution and habitat damage have not worked. Just 10% of the 160,000 hectares of peatland SSSIs in the English uplands are in favourable condition and some species like hen harrier, peregrine and goshawk remain in jeopardy.

    That is why, in June we called on each of the major political parties to introduce a licensing system for driven grouse shooting after the election (see here). We have made a similar call in Scotland. This would complement our desire for the introduction of an offence of vicarious liability for landowners whose employees are guilty of illegal killing of birds of prey - a measure that was introduced north of the border in 2012.

    Intensification of management is a problem in large parts of the uplands where the desire for increasing the shootable surplus of red grouse has led to the use medicated grit, more frequent burning on deep peat soils, intensive control of foxes, crows, stoats and weasels and, yes by some, illegal killing of birds of prey.

    It is ridiculous that in 21st century England, we have to maintain 24 hour surveillance of two of the three hen harrier nests in England. Just three nests is a big step forward as in 2013 no nests were successful – and we are rolling out our plans for the future including more satellite tags.  We, as always, rely on support which is why we’ve launched an appeal to help us do more to protect hen harriers.

    In addition to our call for a licensing system for driven grouse shooting, we are supporting Hen Harrier Day to put a spotlight on illegal killing. This event, organised by birdwatchers and naturalists will be a show of solidarity by all those that want to see an end to illegal persecution of this icon of the hills.

    I started by stressing the need for constructive engagement and this is at the heart of our Skydancer project where we are working with local communities including gamekeepers to celebrate and help conserve hen harrier population in England. We’re so proud that Skydancer has been nominated for a National Lottery Award and there’s still a chance to vote for Skydancer.

    Game Fair is a chance to talk, to celebrate good working relationships and hopefully is the trigger for a constructive debate that can help us craft more sustainable shooting models. I look forward to my day in the sun in Oxfordshire.

  • A message to the incoming Environment Secretary

    The sixth Secretary of State in eight years has been appointed today to succeed Margaret Becket, David Miliband, Hilary Benn, Caroline Spelman and Owen Paterson.

    A warm welcome to Liz Truss MP.

    With a General Election inked in for May 2015, she has ten months to make an impact but history tells us that this is a brief where you can do great things and may need to be prepared to deal with floods, plagues and even pestilence.

    In the spirit of constructive challenge, here is a short guide to being successful in the best job in government...

    1. Use your voice for nature - the Cabinet needs at least one champion for the natural environment and we hope and expect the Environment Secretary to do just that.

    2. Embrace the ambition for this to be the first generation to pass on the natural environment in a better state to the next - you inherit a clear agenda outlined in the Natural Environment White Paper and England Biodiversity Strategy but you will quickly find that there is a mismatch between this ambition and resources available

    3. Make existing resources work hard for wildlife - you arrive at a crucial time as the final piece of the CAP reform jigsaw is about to be slotted in to place.  The New Environmental Land Management Scheme will provide you with an additional £925m to support wildlife friendly farming - a well designed scheme supported by expert advice can make this money go a long way and help address the parlous state of farmland wildlife.

    4. Don't neglect those bits of nature that are out of sight and out of mind - especially the marine environment and our Overseas Territories. Small investment of resource in these areas can go a long way. 

    5. Your time in office will coincide with development of your party's manifesto for the next election. Take the time to find out what is working on the ground, be curious about the merits of the Nature Improvement Areas established under this government, think about how to reconcile human and nature needs. Specifically, please do think about our proposals for a new Nature and Wellbeing Bill and licensing of driven grouse moors.

    6. Environmental NGOs are here to help.  It may not feel like it at times, but our job is to do whatever nature needs and we want to work with Defra to turn ambition into reality.

    Good luck!