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
  • On the road for this year's party conference season: second stop Liverpool with the Labour Party

    Since hearing the EU referendum result in the early hours of 24 June, I have felt that we need to be at our best to ensure Brexit works for nature and for people.

    And, when I say ‘we’, I mean the RSPB, other NGOs and, of course, politicians from all parties.

    The headlines in the State of Nature report launched with Sir David Attenborough ten days ago provided a stark reminder of the scale of the challenge that the UK Government faces in meeting its ambition to restore biodiversity in a generation (as well as its commitments to the UN’s sustainable development goals and biodiversity targets).

    The Brexit vote has clearly created jeopardy and opportunity.  In this unpredictable period there are few things that are certain.  But we do know that the UK Government’s ambition for nature – shared, I believe by all the major political parties – will be unattainable unless it does at least three things...

    ...maintain or bolster existing levels of environmental protection

    ...guard against the intensification of natural resource use

    ...continue to play our part in tackling issues that transcend national boundaries such as decline in migratory species and climate change.

    While in Liverpool for the second party conference of the 2016 season, this is the conversation that we want to have with the Labour Party.

    A left-leaning robin courtesy of Ray Kennedy (

    Following the results of the leadership election on Saturday, Jeremy Corbyn remains in charge.  All weekend, there were broad calls for unity and acceptance of the leadership result with Deputy Tom Watson saying that they were ‘getting the band back together’ after a summer apart.

    While media attention will be given to which MPs join the Shadow Cabinet, I am much more interested in what the party is going to say on the environment and how they do their job, as the official Opposition, in holding the UK Government to account for its environmental performance. 

    During the campaign Jeremy Corbyn made ten pledges, one of which focuses on “Action to secure our environment”.  This includes “keeping to Paris climate agreement, and moving to a low-carbon economy and green industries, in part via national investment bank”.  Speaking to SERA, the Labour environmental campaign, Mr Corbyn also said “For me, the environment is not an afterthought” and went on to highlight environmental protections, fracking and climate change as key priorities for the environment.

    This is a good platform for those Labour MPs prepared to use their political voices for nature.  

    Last night, at our joint event with WWF and The Wildlife Trusts, Rachael Maskell MP, the Shadow Environment Secretary (and species champion for the tansy beetle), spoke alongside Mary Creagh MP, chair of the Environmental Audit Committee and a reknowned campaigner on environmental issues banning microbeads (which was ultimately successful).  Both gave a robust defence of the Labour party's record on the environment (referencing legislation they passed to protect our finest wildlife sites, to conserve the marine environment and to tackle climate change) argued to retain the provisions of the EU Birds and Habitats Directive and wanted to build a new consensus for how we should achieve our environmental ambitions.

    This was good stuff.

    Yet, I left feeling that we will only make progress if the environmental champions within each of the parties are prepared to take a stand and ensure that the environment is a mainstream concern for their party.  There are others, such as fellow species champions Kerry McCarthy (swift); Angela Smith (hen harrier); Daniel Zeichner (ruderal bee) who are strong advocates and it is pleasing that to date, 35 Labour MPs have also signed the Environment pledge.

    As I hope for all political parties, the Labour party needs to be at its best in the weeks ahead.  All decision-makers must ensure that some of their finite creative energy needed for the Brexit process is focused on making it harder for people to harm nature and easier for people to do good things for nature.

    Those of us working in charities will, of course, join forces to do what we can to make it desirable for politicians to act.  But we also need leadership from within the political establishment.  It will only be when we work together that we can have confidence that we can improve the state of nature.

  • More good news for a Friday: big announcement about West Africa’s rainforest and its residents

    The good news keeps on coming.  The latest comes from West Africa showing that dreams can come true...

    In 2009, the presidents of Sierra Leone and Liberia met together to announce the dream of a huge trans-boundary park to protect the precious Gola rainforest which straddles their two countries.  Yesterday, our BirdLife partner in Liberia, the Society for the Conservation of Nature of Liberia (SCNL) was delighted to inform us that the government has just passed a bill which officially designates 88,000 hectares of Liberia’s rainforest as a national park. Combined with Sierra Leone’s Gola Rainforest National Park created in 2010, this new puzzle piece creates a Greater Gola Landscape which is the largest single block of remaining Upper Guinea Forest.  This is a fabulous example of "protecting the best" and contributes to global ambitions for nature and sustainable development.

    At one time, our swifts or cuckoos might have migrated over a forest which provided continuous tree cover across most of Sierra Leone, Liberia, south-east Guinea, southern Ivory Coast and south-west Ghana. By 1990, only a fifth of this forest was left. However, it still remains an important site for birds migrating from Europe and beyond.

    Today, as we are all painfully aware, threats to the remaining rainforest are many, from slash and burn agriculture to mining – Gola forest sits on top of large reserves of iron ore, as well as other precious commodities such as gold and diamonds. But thanks to the RSPB’s continuous work in partnership with the Conservation Society of Sierra Leone, SCNL and the respective governments, threats are being resisted.

    Gola’s communities have long used the forest resources sustainably for items such as wood and medicinal plants, as well as benefiting from the water and soil erosion protection the forest provides. And through our community and education programmes, local people are becoming ever more aware and proud of their forest’s wildlife treasures. The Greater Gola Landscape has 327 different species of birds – including the endangered Gola malimbe (pictured) – more than 600 species of butterfly, at least 40 amphibian species and 9 species of globally threatened mammals, including pygmy hippopotamus, Western chimpanzee and the African forest elephant.

    But while Liberia’s Gola Forest National Park designation is important and cheerful news, the work isn’t finished. Extreme poverty and lack of job opportunities remain a problem for the region. We will continue to support SCNL and the Liberian government to improve the livelihoods of local communities and protect this vital rainforest – for their benefit and for ours - and to ensure that the regions wildlife and the birds that migrate there continue to have this refuge.

    For now though, I would like to give three cheers to all who helped make this happen.

    Have a great weekend.

  • Good news for a Friday: congratulations to Catfield coalition

    Earlier this week at the Lib Dem conference in Brighton, Baroness Kate Parminter spoke about how much she liked coalitions.  Clearly, as the party’s environment lead she was proud about what the party had achieved in government but she was also talking about the impact that coalitions can have when people or organisations come together with an agreed purpose.  Together they can be mighty.

    I agree and have spent much of my working life working in or for coalitions to have positive impact for nature: State of Nature and the Climate Coalition are two good recent examples. 

    This week, another smaller but perfectly formed coalition was able to celebrate the protection of one of our most important sites for wildlife. 

    You may have seen the news that an independent Inspector has refused an appeal against two water abstraction licence renewal applications that threatened rare wildlife at Catfield Fen nature reserve, in Norfolk, which the RSPB manages on behalf of Butterfly Conservation. 

    Butterfly Conservation, Plantlife, and the RSPB worked together as a mini coalition along with Natural England to provide ecological evidence for the Environment Agency's robust defence of its refusals at the Appeal inquiry in Spring this year.  Using its expert knowledge of the reserve, the RSPB assisted with the argument that abstraction was having a detrimental impact on the condition of the protected wildlife site.  

    As I have written previously (see here, here and here), Catfield and its sister site, Sutton Fen, are of international importance and possibly contain the largest number of threatened species in the whole of the UK including some very rare water beetles and plants like the beautiful and delicate Fen Orchid shown here (of which the sites hold more than 90% of the UK population).

    While there has been a bit of a reaction from the farming community about this, this is just another example of the big conversation that we need to have as a result of the Brexit vote.

    The UK Government is clear that it wants to restore biodiversity in 25 years and has international obligations to do so (through the Convention on Biological Diversity Aichi targets and the UN's Sustainable Development Goals).  It will not be possible to realise these commitments unless it starts with the basics of “stopping the rot and protecting the best” places for wildlife.  That’s why the Inspector was right to uphold the original decisions from the Environment Agency to reject the water abstraction license applications.

    But there is a bigger issue here.  We want and need the UK to start “restoring the rest” and that’s why it is essential that Defra clearly writes into its emerging agriculture and landuse plan the ambition to improve the farmed environment. 

    This will then allow Government to line up the essential tools to drive restoration of our environment.

    We are here to help and I hope that we can bring together a big, broad coalition of environment, health, food and farming groups to make the case for an environment, farming and rural development policy that works for people and for nature.