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
  • Hen harriers and YFTB (again!)

    In this guest post from Jeff Knott, RSPB Head of Nature Policy, he talks about his visit to the CLA Game Fair, the fortunes of hen harriers and the latest from You Forgot the Birds:

    I’ve just got back from a weekend spent at the CLA Game Fair.

    While every year there are some challenging discussions, this is an event I genuinely look forward to. The opportunity to engage with the shooting community in all its variety is always fascinating and useful.

    Positive discussion

    This year, in addition to useful chats with organisations such as the Moorland Association, CLA and GWCT, I was particularly pleased to have the opportunity for a positive discussion with Richard Ali, Chief Executive of BASC, on Radio 4’s Today programme.

    This was a classic example of why I enjoy the Game Fair. We didn’t agree on everything, but we had a good exchange of views in a respectful and professional way. He even gave me a bag of their new grouse flavoured crisps!

    Latest from You Forgot the Birds

    All of that makes it even more disappointing to see the latest missive from You Forgot The Birds (YFTB) issued today. For previous from this recently formed group, see here and here.

    This time the allegation is that RSPB is causing hen harrier nests to fail through excessive human interference. These allegations are extremely serious. If YFTB (or indeed anyone) has any actual evidence of disturbance, whatever the source, they should go to the Police immediately.

    But, as far as I’m concerned, our staff and volunteers monitoring and protecting hen harriers on the ground are some of the most dedicated, professional and brilliant conservationists in the world. They live and breathe hen harrier conservation and their commitment to saving hen harriers is unquestioned.

    Male hen harrier. Image by Andy Hay (

    I know many of the individuals involved personally and their passion though the ups and downs of a hen harrier breeding season is unmatched. I’m proud to call them my colleagues. All of us who care about wildlife owe them a massive debt of gratitude.

    RSPB nature reserves across the UK provided a home to 49 pairs of hen harriers in 2014, about 8% of the national population. These pairs are found on that tiny percentage of the UK's uplands where the RSPB has reserves.

    This is good, but we want it to be even better.

    Five nests in England (four at Bowland and one on our Geltsdale reserve) failed this year after males disappeared while out hunting. This is extremely unusual and a real worry.

    While we may never know what happened to these five individual birds, it’s hard to see how anything happening at the nest could cause the male to disappear while away from the nest, but leave the females unaffected and patiently sitting on their eggs, or brooding their young whilst under the protective gaze of our volunteers and staff.

    But I want to remain positive.

    The RSPB’s EU Life-funded hen harrier project is a cross-border England and Scotland project running from 2014-2019 on hen harriers. It clearly sets out to tackle what a government report says is the biggest issue facing our hen harriers – illegal persecution. We will get there.

    And this Sunday a group of people will come together, organised by Birders Against Wildlife Crime, in the Goyt Valley and at other locations around Britain, as part of “Hen Harrier Day”.

    This will be a wonderful show of grass roots support for these iconic and threatened birds and it’s this that shows the way forward. We encourage everyone who cares about these beautiful birds to take part and attend if you can.

    I’ll be there in the Goyt and hope to see many of you there.

  • What has the EU ever done for wildlife?

    Following on from the tremendous public response to the consultation on the future of the Nature Directives, in which 520,325 people told European leaders not to weaken them – I’m delighted to welcome Dr Paul Donald, Principle Conservation Scientist at the RSPB, to talk about his latest research that proves just how effective the Birds Directive is.

    The European Union is under pressure like never before. Growing discontent about being “ruled” from Brussels and the threat of a Greek exit from the Eurozone have raised questions about what the EU is really good for. Well, here is one thing it is good for: conserving wildlife. A bold claim, but one we can now prove. But first, a little background. All Member States of the EU have to adopt two world-leading pieces of conservation legislation – the 1979 EU Birds Directive and the 1992 EU Habitats Directive. These Directives place a responsibility on all members of the EU, ourselves included, to protect the most threatened species and the most important sites, and together they form the cornerstone of EU conservation policy. The Directives set common standards and common goals that all countries must achieve, thus uniting and strengthening conservation policy across the 4 million square kilometres and 500 million people of the EU.

    But do they actually work? This is a surprisingly difficult question to answer. For example, how can we tell how well species are doing, when information on their numbers is so sparse? And how is it possible to isolate the contribution of the Directives when there are so many other changes buffeting wildlife populations, such as a warming climate? In the case of the Birds Directive, however, we have been able to address these problems.

    In a paper published today in the journal Conservation Letters, by scientists from the RSPB Centre for Conservation Science, BirdLife International and Durham University, we analysed the long-term and short-term population trends of all Europe’s bird species using a new dataset collected as part of EU members’ reporting requirements under the Directives (much of it by thousands of volunteers across Europe, so a great example of the power of citizen science). Our aim was to assess whether species identified by the Birds Directive as being of particular concern and therefore requiring special conservation measures, so-called Annex I species, have fared any better than species not listed on Annex I - while at the same time accounting for the impacts of other factors such as climate change, migration strategy and habitat preference.

    The results were unequivocal – no matter how hard we tried to find other explanations for the patterns we found, we could not escape the conclusion that Annex I species have done very significantly better than the average. Furthermore, they have done better in countries that have been in the EU, and so under the protection of the Directive, for longer. Good news indeed that we have in place an international conservation policy that actually works for our more threatened species, but there is, inevitably, a cloud on the horizon.

    At the request of the President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Junker, the Directives are currently being subjected to a detailed review. Many conservationists see this review as a prelude to weakening the Directives. It would be utterly perverse if this were to happen when we now have such strong scientific evidence that these may be among the most successful international conservation agreements anywhere in the world.

    Dr Paul F Donald, Principal Conservation Scientist, RSPB Centre for Conservation Science

  • Some holiday reading

    By the time you read this I shall be safely ensconced in our hut (probably sheltering from the rain) on the Northumberland coast. For company, as well as my wife and children, I shall take Mike Pratt’s new book Wild Northumbria. It will inspire me to explore more of the best county in England.

    Before I run away on leave, there are few things to note.

    First, I was delighted that our campaign to defend the nature directives reached a remarkable milestone over the weekend with half a million standing up for nature by responding to the European Consultation on the future of the EU Nature Directives. The weight of response to the public consultation from European citizens surely will make the Commission think twice before weakening the Directives. And, it has been inspiring to be part of a strong and powerful NGO coalition across Europe as well as across the UK.

    Second, the latest set of indicators about the state of Natural Environment in England were released, rather quietly, on Thursday. Have a look of them, they don’t make palatable reading for anyone interested in nature. They provide further evidence that we are collectively failing nature. Given the free services that nature gives us, in turn, this undermines our own prosperity. Last week’s announcement of further cuts in public spending clearly will not help. Yet, through our own practical conservation we know what needs to be done and we need political will to reboot conservation efforts. Let’s begin by properly implementing wildlife laws, bolstering our nature conservation agencies, support local communities who want to give nature a home and ensure that existing budgets, like those for farming, work harder for nature.

    Third, I was dismayed by the process which led to the decision to grant an 'emergency authorisation' to allow the use of neonicotinoids (see my colleague Ellie Crane's blog here).  Thus is a highly emotive subject and we expect much higher standards of transparency I the decision-making process.

    Finally, for the first time in years, I shall miss Game Fair. This will be the latest opportunity for us to reach out to those in the shooting community that want to work with us to restore our uplands, address burning on peatlands and protect threatened species such as hen harrier and curlew. My boss Mike Clarke and our Scottish Director Stuart Housden, will be leading our conversations and if you are attending, please do pop by our stand for a chat.

    By then, my predecessor’s book Inglorious will be published making the case for a ban on grouse shooting. Mark Avery has also now launched a new petition to support his campaign (see here). As a result, I have received calls on the RSPB to support this petition. Given the damage caused by intensive driven grouse shooting, I understand the support for such a petition. But the RSPB continues to focus on improving enforcement of the law and we believe licensing grouse shoots is one potential way of helping this while vicarious liability is another.  Our full position can be read here.  We think it is really important that the grouse industry gets its house in order or calls for a ban will only grow.

    My colleague, Jeff Knott, will be talking more on our commitment to saving hen harriers at Hen Harrier Day (which I shall once again miss because of the timing of my leave).  I would encourage anyone who cares about hen harriers to attend the event in the Goyt Valley (see here)

    Please do keep an eye on this blog while I am away. I have arranged for a few guest blogs including a series focusing our attempts to ‘unlock wonderfulness’ through our nature reserves.

    Have a wonderful few weeks and I look forward to seeing some of you at Bird Fair next month.