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
  • Three things to look out for in the Budget

    If you are watching the Budget tomorrow, you may want to pass the time and play Budget Bingo by creating a grid of catchphrases that you expect the Chancellor to use and then ticking them off one by one.  You could include "northern powerhouse", "long-term economic plan", "all in this together" etc. Students would obviously turn this into a drinking game, but I don't advise that.

    Instead, I suggest those interested in what the Budget means for nature should pay attention to three areas...

    1. Language

    In his pre-election Budget, the Chancellor committed (here) to designating a marine protected area around Pitcairn Island - one of the 14 UK Overseas Territories.  On the eve of his first budget since the election, we can only speculate which if any of the environmental manifesto commitments will be referenced in his speech: the proposed 25 year plan for biodiversity, the role of the Natural Capital Committee or perhaps the desire for a blue belt to deliver protection in the marine environment?  Perhaps a better question to ask is will nature get mentioned at all? And if it is mentioned, will it be as an asset that should attract investment or as a constraint on economic growth? 

    2. The scale of public spending cuts

    While the focus will be on welfare, we also expect to hear about the scale of cuts that non-protected government departments will need to make.  Analysis published (here) by Green Alliance last week suggested that Decc's budget could halve and result in 90% reduction in staff with serious consequences for government's ability to meet its climate change commitments.  Like Decc, Defra has a range of areas which it can’t cut such as flood risk management and the Rural payments Agency (for fear of EU sanction) which means that any cuts will fall disproportionately on other functions and agencies like Natural England.  Any cuts would be on top of the 30% cut that Defra has received since 2010.  This would inevitably affect government's ability to plan and deliver its nature conservation ambitions such as the outcomes for species, habitats and sites in the England biodiversity strategy.  

    3. The preparedness to scope innovative financing options 

    In its third report published before the election, the Natural Capital Committee (here) outlined seven options for securing new finance to protect and enhance natural capital...

    "(i) Capital maintenance payments from public, not for profit and private sector asset
    (ii) Rents from non-renewable resources (e.g. oil or shale gas);
    (iii) Compensation payments from developers;
    (iv) Greater use of economic instruments (e.g. taxes and charges);
    (v) Reforming and eliminating perverse subsidies;
    (vi) Potential new and innovative sources (e.g. plastic bag charge, crowd funding
    schemes, Payment for Ecosystem Services);
    (vii) Taking advantage of match funding opportunities (e.g. the EU Life Programme)"

    A Budget that was serious about investing nature and the free services that it gives people would explain how it would be exploring these seven options.  

    And a Budget that was serious about a move to low carbon economy would also provide clear signals to those investing in new green technologies.  Investors don’t like the immeasurable risks associated with entirely novel industry.  This is why the environment sector has consistently called for clear and consistent government policy to provide business certainty. This has been undermined recently by removing the onshore wind support prematurely and suggesting that the Green Investment Bank might be sold off.  If the budget makes further similar moves such as removing the policy of increasing the use of green taxes it will further damage certainty for business and so our ability to leverage new – non-public - money for the environment. 

    Once the Chancellor sits down tomorrow, the Treasury publishes its proposals in full and that's when our economists start poring over the detail.  Tomorrow, I'll let you know what gems they uncover.

    Until then, eyes down...

  • A thought on airports

    Understandably, there was extensive media coverage of the report led by the airport Commission led by Sir Howard Davies.  

    Those of you that are regular readers of RSPB blogs will know that we have two principal concerns about aviation expansion...

    ...the damage to sites of international wildlife importance and

    ...the increasing climate change threat of a spike in greenhouse gas emissions.

    We're thankful therefore that the Thames Estuary airport, which would have destroyed a huge swathe of bird-rich habitat in the Thames, remains buried by Sir Howard Davies in his commission report.

    But, like many environmental groups, we remain opposed to airport expansion on climate grounds.

    On Tuesday, the Climate Change Committee called for government to, "Publish an effective policy framework for aviation emissions" because current policies are not sufficient.

    Our conclusion is simple - effective controls on aviation emissions must come before capacity expansion for claims that we can have both to have any credence.

    I trust that the Government will consider carefully what both Committees have said before making its decision before the end of the year.

  • Why was the Birds Directive created? Guest blog from Alistair Gammell

    Today, I am delighted to welcome my former RSPB colleague,  Alistair Gammell. Alistair worked for the RSPB for three decades including as our first International Director.  Amongst his many achievements, he played a key role in shaping the EU Directives.  These critical laws that are now under threat.  In this guest blog, he outlines why the laws were created.

    Was the Birds Directive, and later the Habitats Directive adopted as some would have you believe because super-crazed Eurocrats couldn’t resist interfering with nature conservation policies that were clearly working well without their interference? Or was it because increasing bird shooting and trapping, combined with increasing habitat destruction, was unsustainable and posed an ever growing threat to Europe’s migrant birds, whose life-patterns know no boundaries?

    In the 1970s bird-killing in Europe wasn’t just a few people carrying out some occasional arcane traditional practice, but it was a sustained massacre in which many hundreds of millions of birds, common and rare, were being killed annually in Europe.

    To increase the numbers they killed, hunters were travelling to the best places for birds, and using the latest technology, such as repeating shotguns, mist nets, tape recordings of calls to lure in flocks. Indiscriminate means such as bird-lime and traps were commonplace, as was hunting in many areas in all seasons, including in spring, as birds struggled back to Europe to breed.

    At the same time, Europe’s landscapes were being transformed by increased urbanisation, more intensive farming, pollution, and the use of pesticides, so Europe’s birds had less and less suitable habitat available to breed.

    European citizens, recognising Europe’s birds were in trouble and that the threats to them were not only international and beyond the control of any single government, but in many cases were exacerbated by EU policies, demanded Europe-wide action to protect our natural heritage and to reduce the killing of birds to a sustainable level. Since then the threats from increasing urbanisation, intensive land use and bird hunting have not gone away, indeed they are more intense than ever. So the requirement for international action to protect birds remains and is just as relevant today as it was in the 1970s.

    The Directives were framed with reasonableness in mind. They do not make the law, but just set agreed minimum standards and then leave it to individual EU governments to implement these in the way they think best. The Directives require that the most threatened species be given special protection and the most important places in Europe for birds and other wildlife be given special protection. That seems important and sensible.But the special protection for species and places is not made absolute.

    National Governments can grant exceptions (called derogations) if they need to, but when doing so, they need to demonstrate they have looked at other solutions and show that these alternatives were not satisfactory.  

    Again this seems perfectly reasonable. Wouldn’t we really want people who were proposing to damage or destroy a national treasure – for that is what these rare birds or important places for wildlife are - to have thought twice and to show they have looked at alternatives and rejected these for rational reasons? And these EU policies have worked. Rare species are proven to have been better off because of the Birds Directive, and bird killing, though still unfortunately still too widespread, has declined.

    But of course some people are stopped from doing whatever they want - that is what laws do and we should be glad of it. Governments and developers actually have to show that alternative and less damaging solutions are not possible. Hunters cannot just kill protected species. Hurrah to that.

    Nothing has changed since the 1970s except that today Europe’s wildlife is even more threatened and needs the protection afforded by these directives even more than ever.

    With due deference to Franklin Roosevelt, I have unashamedly adapted one of his quotes which to me sum up why these Directives are needed and must remain strong.

    It is our European landscapes and nature, our European languages and European culture that make Europe different and our home. We should cherish its natural wonders, cherish the natural resources, cherish the history and romance as a sacred heritage, for our children and our children's children. Do not let selfish men or greedy interests skin our continent of its beauty, its riches or its romance.

    If you haven’t already you can act now to defend nature, by taking just a few minutes to respond to the EU consultation on the future of the Nature Directives. Over 283,000 people already have – making this the biggest ever response to an EU consultation! Join this movement and let EU leaders know that you won't tolerate of weakening of our most important laws for wildlife.