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
  • 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 (rspb-images.com)

     

    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 (rspb-images.com)

    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

  • Ratification of the Paris treaty: a big day for climate action and lessons for nature

    One of the recurring themes of yesterday’s seminar on the future of UK biodiversity policy was the role of effective regulation and incentives, supported by clear government ambition, to both protect and drive investment in natural resource management. 

    We are still in the early days of trying to work out how best to capture the value of nature in decision-making and support pro-nature business behaviour but I was buoyed by the growing consensus about the direction of travel.  While some, like the Welsh Government, have a clear plan, within England, we still await the publication of the 25 year plan for the environment – now due after the EU Referendum.

    I think we have a lot to learn from the way that climate change policy has evolved over the past decade. 

    Today, for example, world leaders are gathering in New York for the signing ceremony of the Paris global climate treaty. While many have argued, rightly, that the Paris Treaty does not go far enough, the new commitment to keep global temperatures well below 2oC and on a path to 1.5 oC is already having a profound impact.

    Kittiwakes - at risk from a changing climate (Andy Hay, rspb-images.com)

    The winds of change are sweeping across the worlds of businesses and finance as fossil fuels and their associated industries no longer look like appealing assets. Indeed, I noted with interest that Peabody, the world’s  largest private-sector coal company filed for bankruptcy last week while the papers are full of reports of solar power companies booming globally. Remarkably, even Saudi Arabia has stated  this month that it no longer wants its economy to be dependent on oil in 20 years time.

    Companies and countries are responding to global signals about our collective desire to decarbonise the global economy.

    Closer to home, good foundations remain in place with the Climate Change Act (2008) providing the statutory drive for action.   It established a long term target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from a 1990 baseline by 80% by 2050 and then obliged the introduction of five year carbon budgets to ensure that we were on the trajectory.

    This has shaped policy and business has responded.

    However, the Paris treaty has now raised ambition in line with science.  The UK, like the rest of the EU is waiting before it revises its climate ambition for a major review in 2018 to be conducted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). This will look at the implications of cutting emissions dramatically to take us on a path to limiting temperature rise to 1.5 oC.

    Waiting on the outcomes of the review might seem sensible were it not that the EU’s new package of climate and energy laws (which set us on a path for up to 2.4oC warming) will be negotiated by all member states during 2016-17. NGOs including the RSPB have been robust in highlighting this issue.

    Here in the UK, the Government is currently deciding on the targets and policies needed to reduce emissions in the 2028-32 period (known as the Fifth Carbon Budget). In evidence the RSPB recently submitted to the Energy and Climate Change Select Committee’s inquiry on the Fifth Carbon Budget, we highlight just how crucial delivering substantial emissions reductions is to securing a future for wildlife. Indeed I have posted before on the very significant impacts climate change is expected to have on the natural world.

    While the UK Government played a valuable role in the Paris discussions, greater action is now needed at home.  Cuts in measures to support carbon reduction has left us veering away from having the means to deliver the emissions reductions needed. Furthermore, problems with the way carbon is counted in our carbon budgets must be addressed to prevent any carbon budget looking more ambitious than it really is.

    So, for both climate and for nature policy, we need ambition that is commensurate with need, legislative certainty and incentives that drive innovative investment to realise that change. 

    For climate, this means the UK Government must ensure that UK law reflects the ambition required to stay within safe climate limits as set out in the Paris treaty so that our emissions reach net zero by 2050. Climate Minister Andrea Leadsom recently that “The Government believes we will need to take the step of enshrining the Paris goal of net zero emissions in UK law”, this needs to be followed by swift action if we are to ensure a safe future for all the species affected by climate change including our own.

    And, as the UK Government ponders its 25 year plan for the environment, I encourage it to look again at the lessons from climate change policy and develop a plan that matches the needs of nature.