Martin Harper's blog

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Our work
You might be surprised to read that our work is far broader than nature reserves and Big Garden Birdwatch. Read more about what else we do.

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
  • Bustards spread their wings as project closes

    This year 33 birds were released in Wiltshire as part of the EU LIFE+ Great Bustard project.  They have shown good survival to date, and have been seen spreading their wings as far afield as Alderney and Dorset.  Like most of these projects, we won’t know how successful this year’s releases have been until counts are undertaken in spring 2015.  As part of the Natural England licence, the Great Bustard Group will be doing this monitoring, and we look forward to hearing what we hope will be positive news.

    As the EU project, which has financially supported this work since 2010, closes, I have invited Dr Andy Evans, Head of our Nature Recovery Unit which led the project, to give some personal reflections on this work.


    Reintroduced great bustard in flight. Image by David Kjaer  (

    One summer’s morning in 2014 I had one of the greatest privileges of my 25 year career in conservation. I found myself standing in a grass field on Salisbury Plain, surrounded by the timber and netting of a huge release pen.  I was dressed in a dehumanising suit, designed to make me look like an adult great bustard and was carrying a model of a great bustard head.

    I was alone. Alone that is, except for a creche of 9, 6-week-old great bustard chicks. These chicks had arrived in the UK from Spain as eggs, eggs which had been incubated and hatched by staff at ‘BirdWorld’, then hand-reared by LIFE+ project staff at a secret site on Salisbury Plain.

    My job was that of tutor. In the wild, great bustard chicks stay with the adults for a long period, during which they learn about their environment – what to eat, when to run, when to hide.

    I spent an inspirational 90 minutes getting to know my class and showing them the sweetest, tastiest young lucerne leaves and encouraging them to try the occasional beetle or spider. I was entranced by the way they followed me, watching for guidance and visibly learning.

    On the long trip home I had time to reflect with great pride upon how much the LIFE+ partnership had brought to the long-term efforts to bring this magnificent species back to the UK.  We have made some tremendous advances in the last 4 years:  switching from importing Russian-reared chicks to Spanish eggs, refining the chick diet after an exchange visit to our colleagues in Germany, introducing the dehumanising suits and schooling the chicks, sourcing two new release sites each with a more open vista and lower predator densities than the original site, switching from chain-link fencing to soft electric fencing and thus reducing collision risk.  All these changes have resulted in hugely improved post-release survival and given real hope that the ultimate objective of establishing a self-sustaining wild population of great bustards in southern England can eventually be achieved.

    Of course it is with a tinge of sadness that I am writing this at a time when the partners have agreed to close the EU LIFE+ project 9 months early (see here). Notwithstanding this, I would like to take the opportunity to wish the Great Bustard Group every success in the future as they pursue the laudable objective of bringing this incredible species back to its former home in the UK.  And I remain proud of the contribution that the LIFE+ partnership has made towards this ambition and the tremendous progress that has been achieved.

    Andy Evans

  • Finding Solutions to 21st Century Conservation Problems (3)

    I have not been blogging much recently.  Sorry about that - the cold weather has slowed me down.

    But, I was stirred to return to the keyboard having spent 24 hours at the RSPB's Annual Science Meeting.  It was, as ever, inspiring to hear about the breadth of our work geared to finding solutions to 21st century conservation problems.

    Here are four highlights...

    ...celebrating the achievement of Professor Rhys Green who was recently accredited as being one of the most influential scientists in his field in the world. Rhys, who is Principle Research Biologist at the RSPB and Professor of Conservation Science at the University of Cambridge, now appears on the Thomson Reuters list of most cited researchers (see here).  Anyway who knows Rhys will agree that he fits easily into the top 1% of research scientists.  Rhys has, over the past 30 years, had a hand in many of the RSPB's big conservation success stories from corncrakes to Asian vultures.  His research can be game-changing, for example through his collaboration with Durham University et al over the production of the Climatic Atlas of European Breeding Birds (here).  And he continues to have a major influence in global conservation decision-making for example by producing a joint statement with other scientists about the wildlife and human health impacts from the use of lead ammunition in Europe (here).  This statement inevitably had a major impact on the decision made at the recent international negotiations to phase out lead in ammunition (here).  If implemented by countries like the UK, this will help remove one of the many threats facing our migratory species.  We rightly celebrated Rhys' contribution to conservation science with a splendid cake.

    ...gaining an insight into the breadth of the work we are doing to save fantastic wildlife in Gola Forest in Sierra Leone (here).  Because of the Ebola crisis, much of this work is currently on hold, but it was great to hear about our ambitions to sustainable land management by forest edge communities and the establishment of a monitoring programme involving local communities.   Once the Ebola crisis relents, I have no doubt that we can secure a sustainable future for this incredibly  important forest and that the team get to see the elusive pigmy hippo soon.

    ...prioritising islands in the UK and our Overseas Territories for the eradication of invasive non-native vertebrates (see here).  Island introductions - such as cats, rats and mice - can cause havoc, threatening extinction of species.  So, despite the complexity, risk and cost of mounting expeditions to eradicate these invasive species, we remain prepared to take the necessary action.  We have had success - enabling the recovery of species like Manx sheerwater on Lundy or  removing feral cats from Ascension Island to benefit species like the Ascension Frigatebird (here) - but we have also experienced failure - rats remain on Henderson Island (here) despite our best efforts.  But, we learn from these experiences and are undeterred from embarking on new challenges. This new research will help us work out where we can have the biggest impact to save nature on islands close to home and our Overseas Territories.  

    ...getting a sneak preview of new research projects as well as hearing results from existing projects that are nearing publication.   Given our track-record in influencing change through conservation science, I expect many of these will have a big impact when published - but alas they will remain confidential for now!  You'll just have to be patient.

    If you would like to find more about our science, please do visit the Centre for Conservation Science website here or follow the team on twitter here @RSPBScience.

  • What a wonderful world

    It's cold, the days are getting shorter, man-flu will soon set in for the winter and so I am on the look out for good news to lift the gloom.

    Here then are 25 positive stories which have been compiled by my colleague Andy Evans who heads our Nature Recovery Unit.  This reflects the fantastic work that we have done with a huge range of partners for a large number of species.

    So, if you need cheering up, just sit back, start humming Louis Armstrong's "What a Wonderful World" and read some of the highlights from the RSPB's conservation efforts this year.. 

    1) The recovery of bittern continues - this year there were 70 confirmed nests more than half of which were on RSPB reserves.

    2) Worker short-haired bumblebees were found at Dungeness proving that the reintroduced queens had bred.

    3) Three pairs of black-winged stilt bred in 2014. One at our new Medmerry reserve raised 4 young, less than a year after the seawall was breached!

    4) As a result of mink eradication at RSPB Insh Marshes water voles have returned after an absence of 20 years.

    5) This was the final year of crane school and the class of 2014 graduated with flying colours to join a flock of more than 70 now gracing the Somerset Levels.

    6) The Disney Fund have given $25,000 for work on European eel. This will secure management at 3 key RSPB reserves  as well as education, survey and interpretation work.

    7) Corncrakes had a record breaking year: 2014 saw 1,316 calling males in GB & IoM. The highest number since our conservation programme began and the reintroduced population in England increased 3 fold.

    8) The stone-curlew LIFE+ project is bearing fruit. A 3,300ha agri-environment agreement on Ministry of Defence land in Norfolk should restore essential grass-heath for nesting birds and other wildlife.

    9) More than 30 spikes of Irish lady’s tresses were found at Portmore Lough. The first time they have been recorded at that reserve.

    10) The cirl bunting reintroduction to Cornwall is going well. The population increased from 28 to 39 pairs, which produced over 100 fledglings.

    11) In 2013 Western Isles corn buntings crashed from 76 to 49 pairs. We deployed emergency winter feeding stations and in 2014 the population recovered to 56 pairs.

    12) A raft of new SPA/MPA designations in Scotland and Wales will afford much needed protection for species like gannets, the outrageously long-lived ocean quahog, the critically important lesser sandeel, shags,  the black guillemot (or tystie), the harbour porpoise, kittiwakes and puffins.




    13) The LIFE+ little tern project has had a fantastic first year. Increased wardening helped secure bumper productivity at 6 sites.

    14) Eradication of rats on St Agnes and Gugh had immediate effect, with the first records of Manx shearwater chicks in living memory.

    15) The first storm petrels bred on Lundy 10 years after RSPB led rat eradication.

    16) Lapwing pairs increased on reserves for the second year running and productivity of fenced sites was (on average!) 1.2 chicks per pair. This is enough to fuel population expansion in the future.

    17) The RSPB is gearing up to tackle the declines in curlew down 45% in breeding abundance between 1995 and 2011.

    18) Seven pairs of Montagu’s harriers nested in England and with RSPB organised nest protection, raised 17 young.

    19) There are now too many white-tailed eagles in Scotland to count! With over 80 pairs including 14 new pairs on the West coast and 4 on the East, we have moved to sample monitoring.

    20) Red kites continue to soar high the latest BBS shows an increase of 805% since 1995.

    21) In 2013, no hen harriers nested in England but in 2014 they returned with four nests.  Serious problems remain, but we remain committed to ensuring this fabulous bird is able to fly free from harm.

    22) An autumn survey in Rudong, China located 225 spoon-billed sandpipers -  c.75% of the world population! Knowing where the birds are will help us address the threats

    23) Plans have been drawn up for the first releases of captive bred Gyps vultures in India. We are winning the war against diclofenac and creating safe areas for the birds

    24) Through the continued efforts of the Albatross Task Force mitigation measures are working around the globe with a 99% reduction in bycatch in South Africa!

    25) The cat eradication on Ascension is bearing fruit with seabird populations rapidly increasing.

    I hope you kept humming and enjoyed the snippets of success.  These were achieved thanks to the dedication and professionalism of our staff working with our fabulous partners.  Here's to even more conservation success next year.


    Photo credits

    Bittern – Andy Hay (
    Short-haired bumblebee Nikki Gammans
    Water-vole – Danny Green (
    Crane school – Nick Upton (
    European eel – uncredited - Wikipedia
    Swift – Earnie Janes (
    Corncrake - (
    Stone curlew – Chris Gomersall (
    Irish lady’s tresses – uncredited –
    Cirl bunting – Andy Hay (
    Corn bunting – Andy Evans
    Grassholm – David Wotton (
    Gannet – Andy Hay (
    Lesser sandeel –– Mark Thomas (
    Black guillemot – Chris Gomersall (
    Harbour porpoise  - Genevieve Leaper (
    Little tern with eggs – Andy Hay (
    Little tern with chicks – Kevin Simmonds
    Manx shearwater in flight – Genevieve Leaper (
    Manx shearwater chick – Isle of Scillies Seabird Recovery Project
    Storm petrel – Chris Gomersall (
    Lapwing adult – Andy Hay (
    Lapwing chick – Mike Land (
    Curlew – Andy Hay (
    Montagu’s harrier – Roger Tidman (
    White-tailed eagle – Peter Cairns (
    Red kite – Chris Gomersall (
    Hen harrier – Andy Hay (
    Albatross – Cleo Small
    Frigate birds – Ian Fisher