Martin Harper's blog

Our work

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
  • The science of Big Garden Birdwatch

    On Saturday morning, before taking my daughter to ballet, I shall grab a coffee and sit for an hour staring at my garden.  I'll join the half a million or so that will take part in Big Garden Birdwatch.   The kids and I will take turns with the binoculars and the laptop to spot birds and upload our results. 

    The weather forecast sounds perfect and I am hopeful that the Long-tailed Tits that have been frequent garden visitors this month decide to make an appearance. 

    The survey is now in its 36th year and is the largest of its kind.  We have, over the years, collected a huge amount of data.  I often get asked whether the data collected are valid and meaningful, so I thought I'd share a conversation that I had with Daniel Hayhow, the RSPB scientist who has assumed responsibility for managing the survey.  

    This is what he said...

    "Holding the largest, longest running citizen science dataset in the world offers great potential, but enormous challenges especially in terms of analysis and computation.

    Colleagues in the RSPB Centre for Conservation Science have already used these data in a number of ways and are exploring future uses and application of this vast resource.
    The good news is that there is a good correlation between the trends from the BGBW with those from the BTO/JNCC/RSPB Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) - the main scheme for monitoring the population changes of the UK’s common breeding birds. This correlation works for species you would expect - for instance demonstrating the increase in woodpigeon abundance (742.5% increase in BGBW gardens 1979 - 2014) in the UK and the more recent decline in numbers of greenfinches (70% decline in BGBW gardens since 2005 (-44% decline since 1979).  This gives us confidence in the results collected by hundreds of thousands of citizen scientists.

     Specific questions can also be answered about species which are not covered by other monitoring schemes. For example we can look at the geographic spread and increasing numbers of wintering warblers.  For example, blackcaps have been increasingly recorded in BGBW gardens. It is thought that climate change and possibly increase in people putting out bird food in gardens means that instead of migrating to the Mediterranean and North Africa Blackcaps have been able to increasingly overwinter in the UK  as far North as the Outer Hebrides.

    The type of birdfeed participants use for their Birdwatch is of great importance and allows us to explore relative merits of different types of food. Previously, scientists have used BGBW data to look at the increasing number of Redpolls in gardens in relation to niger seed. Using the 5 years of data available, we found that there was no overall relationship between Redpoll numbers and niger seed. This suggests that the increase in Redpoll numbers in gardens is not primarily driven by increasing niger seed provision. However, in the single year where numbers of Redpoll were particularly high across the country, those gardens where niger seed was provided had higher numbers of Redpoll.  This could have been caused by a combination of factors; an influx of birds from the continent (now considered a separate species), a particularly good breeding season, or a birch seed failure that year meaning birds had to rely on garden food more heavily. Other species on the BGBW radar for investigation include the spread of ring-necked parakeets across the south east.

    There are many more questions to explore with BGBW data that are not available through other sources.  For example, we could do more to explore the importance of garden food provision, assess the influence of different garden features (trees, shrubs, ponds etc), understand the use of gardens in relation to features in the wider area eg distance to woodland/farmland etc.

    It will also be valuable to revisit some of the questions above  with data from subsequent years to see how patterns may have changed.

    And now BGBW asks questions about sightings of other wildlife – mammals (currently: red squirrels, grey squirrels, roe deer, muntjac deer, fox and badger) reptiles and amphibians (including: frogs, toads, grass snakes and slow worms). Again the scale of the data collected via BGBW makes these sightings extremely valuable and we’ve been delighted to work with partners (Mammal Society, Amphibian and Reptile Conservation and People’s Trust for Endangered species) sharing the data.  As the data set grows we hope to use it to improve our understanding of how distribution of these animals changes over time and how they use our gardens."

    I am keen that we make the best use of the data that we generate over this weekend and in future years - so I expect to be keeping Daniel quite busy.  So, while you are drinking your morning coffee and watch the birds in the garden this weekend, be reassured that the data you collect will be put to good use.  And, just as importantly, I hope that it encourages more people to take an interest in wildlife in their garden and, who knows, perhaps even inspire the next generation of conservation scientists.

    Have a great weekend.

    Photo credit: Nigel Blake (rspb-images)

  • Deeply beautiful : why we should rule out fracking in protected areas

    There is a peculiar distinction in British environmentalism that has separated beauty from wildlife.  These two features of the natural world have been championed by different NGOs and even command distinct designations.  I blame Romanticism.  It's never made sense to me - the pleasure and inspiration I draw from beautiful places and amazing wildlife are intrinsically linked.

    And now, for no rational reason, the UK Government has chosen to provide different levels of protection to beauty and wildlife from the new development bête noir - fracking.

    Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs) are aptly named. There are 46 in Britain, some remote like the Isles of Scilly, the wonderful Northumberland coast (home to my family's hut), some right on the edge of urban England, like Cannock Chase—snapped here by @jimpanda as part of our winter photo competition.

    AONBs are protected under the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000. The law should guard against development that threatens adverse impacts on AONBs. Adverse impacts normally include effects like loss of tranquillity from lighting, noise, or traffic; abrupt change of landscape character; and loss of biodiversity.

    Fracking could have all these effects and more.

    While acknowledging the risks to climate change targets, the Are we fit to frack? report also documented a range of damage that fracking could inflict through exploratory and commercial drilling and associated activities, including development and transport infrastructure, water over-abstraction and pollution and noise and light interference.  This potential for destruction is alarming and, in response, on 28 July 2014 the Government published new guidance to rule out shale gas exploration in AONBs, National Parks and World Heritage Sites except in exceptional circumstances.

    Cannock Chase by @jimpanda

    That is a welcome step. But of course, beauty isn’t only skin deep.

    While the Government decided to strengthen the protection of these landscape sites where the damage would be obvious, it failed to offer similar safeguards for our finest wildlife sites, where the effects are potentially even more devastating.

    Take chalk streams, for example. England is home to 85% of the world’s chalk streams. They are prized fisheries and home to protected species such as salmon and sea trout, which need clean water to thrive.

    Many of our chalk streams are designated as protected sites for their wildlife, including Sites of Special Scientific Interest, and fall within the area where Government could shortly award licences to frack.

    Yet the Government did not see fit to offer additional protection for SSSIs at the same time as AONBs.

    English chalk streams are extremely vulnerable to pollution, as well as extra demand for water. In the Chilterns alone there are nine chalk streams, all suffering from low flows as a result of over-abstraction

    The Chilterns Conservation Board has raised concerns over the compatibility of shale gas extraction with conserving these special places. Water abstraction strain and contamination from leakage may happen out of sight below ground, but the risk to these habitats should not be ignored.

    There are many other examples: 85% of the global population of pink-footed geese spend winter in the UK. Two of the four main over-wintering sites for pink-footed geese lie within possible shale gas extraction zones.

    The Government tells us that protected sites like SSSIs, local wildlife reserves or Natura 2000 sites designated by the EU Birds and Habitats Directives, do not need extra protection—mostly because they are already covered by planning guidance and legal defences. There are two main problems with this point of view.

    First of all, the same applies to AONBs and the other landscape sites that the Government saw fit to offer extra guidance for last year. Of course, the damage to SSSIs caused by pollution in our streams, or draining dry of sensitive habitats, may not be as visible as new roads and wells in a National Park. But should we really leave our most sensitive sites open to development, just because the damage isn’t so obvious?

    Second, there are worrying signs that the safeguards that we have relied on for so many years are now under threat. How can we rely on the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) when the Government is even countenancing allowing a 5,000 home development at Lodge Hill, the UK’s most important site for nightingales and building a solar farm on Rampisham Down SSSI in Dorset?  The paper protection provided by the NPPF is looking on shaky ground.

    In the long term, is it even safe to rely on the European Directives, when some Members of the House of Commons are so eagerly awaiting a review (which is always code for weaken) and the European Commission President Juncker seems set to oblige?

    Hydraulic fracturing for shale gas is like nothing we’ve seen before in this country. The infrastructure is bigger, the wells penetrate further, and the amount of water needed could be significant. 18% of the UK’s SSSIs, 13% of our Special Areas of Conservation and 14% of our Special Protection Areas are covered by the current licensing round, but only a small portion of the gas available would be lost by ruling them out.

    If this goes ahead, can we really expect to improve on the 1/3rd of SSSIs in favourable condition today, to meet our target of 50% by 2020? Are we willing to put our most precious wildlife at risk? It’s common sense to issue guidance that gives industry some certainty and rules out our most precious sanctuaries for wildlife.

    On Monday 26 January, the Infrastructure Bill goes to Report Stage in the House of Commons.

    This is the last chance for the Government to rule out fracking in protected areas as part of this bill. There are encouraging signs: MPs from all sides of the House—Tom Greatrex MP, Norman Baker MP, and Sir John Randall MP—have tabled amendments that would effectively stop fracking in the protected places it could hurt the most. I hope that the when the time comes, Parliament will recognise how deeply, and how precariously, the beauty of our natural world runs in this country and rule out fracking in our most wonderful wildlife sites.

  • Guest blog by Rod Leslie: There is no more space….

    To continue to the debate about the future of the EU Nature Directives, I am delighted to welcome back Roderick Leslie.  Rod has direct experience of large scale land use as a senior manager of England’s 600,000 acres of Forestry Commission forests. He was a member of RSPB Council in the late 1980s when RSPB first moved into agricultural policy.


    Of course we need to water down the EU Directives because there is no more space in crowded England. If it is the lives of people versus the environment then of course the environment and nature has to give way however reluctant some of us may be. 

    It’s a universal sentiment, even sometimes (reluctantly !) amongst conservationists, and it is absolutely and totally wrong. Back up the statistics with a look at Google Earth: just over 10% of England is urban, roughly the same is woodland. 70% of England is farmland. Landscape theory says that by 70% a land cover effectively becomes complete, with only islands of other uses. Look at a band across southern England and that is exactly what the country looks like: neat fields from end to end with nothing more than islands of urban and forest. Even in our towns and cities gardens are the biggest land use, followed by roads then by buildings and the urban sprawl of the inter war years is by far the biggest contributor to that urban area. At the housing densities of the last two decades England could build 3 million new homes on no more than 1% of newly developed land !  Only the most blinkered exponent of ‘food security’ could argue that we cannot afford to use that tiny proportion of our farmland, much of which, sadly, retains very limited biodiversity. 

    Rod's image of RSPB reserve Rainham Marshes: where you can watch Little Egret fishing as Eurostar goes past in the background

    So why do we think we are running out of space ? Almost certainly because almost all of us live in cities and even when we travel the railways and motorways  are the obvious focus for development. 

    There may be a need to develop environmentally sensitive land but it is miniscule: confined solely to development that has to go in a particular place: transport corridors and docks, for example, and even then environmental damage may still be being exacerbated by biodiverse land being seen as a cheap option. 

    There is also a perception – justified by the cases conservation has lost – that it is a positively good thing for developers to target environmentally sensitive sites. Practical experience suggest the opposite: it dramatically increases both costs and risks. Land Securities claims to have spent £35 million on Lodge Hill in Kent. It is a very bad investment: the odds are against this site ever being developed. Even when the legal avenues are exhausted and law abiding organisations like RSPB have to admit defeat will the developer actually be able to occupy land which will almost certainly attract direct action ? Which developer is going to take the reputational risk of bulldozing those Nightingales out of their breeding habitat, especially at a time when hunting on their migration routes is causing outrage in the UK ? 

    So the EU Directives are doing us all a favour, conservationists, politicians, developers, by clearly flagging up the relatively limited space where it is just not right to go with development. The issues won’t go away if the Directives are watered down – they will  come back more disruptively through direct action and pressure for domestic legislation which is likely to end up imposing even more restrictions. 

    In an era where fear and insecurity are the weapons of a beleaguered political class we need a bold, positive vision of the future and we can have it. Yes, we are short of space in England, but we can make more and the simple way we can do it is by making our space work harder: the same piece of land delivering several different benefits. The public recognise the idea: it was crucial to the popular revolt against the Government’s plans to sell our national forests.  And RSPB nature reserves are delivering too: combining wildlife, coastal protection and places for people to enjoy looks like a real win-win. We can develop and expand the idea, to flood plain management and to the space around our cities, where land for people, for absorbing the impact of flooding, where reedbeds for cleaning ‘grey’ water runoff could also breed Bitterns and Bearded Tits. Actually, we all live in the ‘Environment’ and the real priority is to create a country for the future where people want to live and do business, not let lose careless capital to degrade our landscapes solely for profit and profit only. 

    Do you agree with Rod?

    It would be great to hear your views.