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
  • Reply to GWCT letter to The Times on grouse moor management

    I'm still on holiday this week, so here's another guest post. This time from RSPB Director of Scotland, Stuart Housden:


    Last Thursday, Teresa Dent, Chief Executive of the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT), who has recently been appointed to the Board of Natural England, sent a letter to 'The Times' on grouse moor management, and it was widely promoted by GWCT. Although it wasn't published, I thought it would be helpful to respond to the content and to set the record straight on a few things where the RSPB was mentioned.

    As you would expect, Teresa seeks to present the work of grouse moor managers in a positive light. She specifically mentions the success of the curlew found on moors managed for red grouse in the North Pennine Moors Special Protection Area (SPA). Curlew are a species which is very important to the RSPB, as its the land bird for which we arguably (after the Scottish crossbill) have the biggest contribution to make in the UK in terms of its European importance.

    Our own research has shown that legal predator control can be important in maintaining breeding populations, particularly where there is a 'predator edge effect' from adjoining conifer plantations. Tackling the root causes of predation is something we must all focus on in the future to help us manage this conservation issue more effectively. Blocks of forestry or improved grassland can help foxes, and crows survive (as they are generalist feeders) and in turn this can impact breeding success of curlews and other ground-nesting birds.

    There is no doubt that gamekeepers seeking to protect red grouse can benefit curlews and some other ground-nesting species. The sympathetic management of moorland is similarly beneficial, preventing conversion to conifer plantations, or loss through overgrazing by sheep. But this can be overdone, with too frequent burning, scrub removal, and the use of moorland drains which damage wetland areas or peatlands.

    Red grouse. Image by Tom Marshall (www.rspb-images.com)

    Driven grouse shooting does not take place on any of our upland RSPB nature reserves and yet they support healthy numbers of breeding curlews, black grouse and other ground-nesting birds. This would not be the impression you gained from the text from Teresa Dent or the GWCT study mentioned. For example, at RSPB Dove Stone in the Peak District we have, since 2010, seen increases in breeding dunlin of 160%, golden plover (19%) and curlew (17%) since we undertook landscape-scale re-wetting and restoration of degraded peatlands there.

    We can also report that breeding waders have seen a threefold increase at RSPB Geltsdale since 2003, while the black grouse population has increased more than sevenfold in this time; from seven lekking males in 2005, to 55 in 2014. Therefore, although some ground-nesting birds can benefit from the habitat management provided on grouse moors, it is misleading to say that they can only be found where grouse moors are managed for shooting grouse. A bit more respect for this from those in the sporting fraternity would be welcome.

    What Teresa doesn't mention is that the North Pennine Moors SPA is also designated by Natural England for supporting 11 pairs of hen harriers (about 2% of the UK population). This species has not nested there for eight years, despite recent assessments that the site could support well in excess of 11 pairs. So, why aren't they there and why has GWCT chosen to put a selective spotlight on a species that has benefited from grouse moor management in the SPA?

    The Bowland Fells SPA should also support far more than the two pairs of harriers currently present, having supported 13 pairs at the time of designation as an SPA. Where are those harriers today? For the record, RSPB nature reserves across the UK provided a home to 42 pairs of hen harriers last year, about 8% of the national population, found on a tiny percentage of the UK's uplands where the RSPB has reserves.

    Despite the tensions with sport shooting, we don't support a ban on driven grouse shooting because we think these moors can play and should play a role in helping birds like the curlew. We continue to work with moorland managers at the joint Langholm Moor Demonstration Project, and are pleased to be involved with other similar initiatives on grouse moors such as the Operation Countrywatch underway in Perthshire. Teresa's figures show the curlew is recovering in the North Pennines, but it continues to decline in the lowlands and in fragmented upland landscapes.

    But, and there is always a but, there is also very strong evidence of illegal damage and destruction of protected species, and in some cases their habitats, on driven grouse moors from the North of Scotland to the Peak District. Increasingly, grouse moor managers are seeking to increase the surplus of red grouse for shooting. This involves more intensive predator control, and on many estates a zero tolerance of protected species as well. It’s not just the RSPB that says this. The Government’s own statutory advisors have said just this in their framework documents for hen harriers and golden eagles.

    More action from Teresa and the GWCT to combat this directly is needed, especially since their own research at Otterburn shows the numbers and breeding success of ground-nesting birds increased in the presence of protected raptors. That's why we are asking political parties to introduce a robust statutory licensing system which will build public confidence in the management associated with the sport and root out the 'bad apples'. Then we might have growing populations of curlew and hen harrier on grouse moors across the UK, and place the industry on a long term and more sustainable footing.

    It is good to see the GWCT acknowledging the need for more hen harriers in the English uplands. It is also good to see them supporting a Hen Harrier Recovery Plan that tackles illegal persecution, which is the key reason for the loss of this species across northern England, and large parts of Scotland.

    We know if harriers are unmolested they can bounce back pretty quickly. I want GWCT to be providing the leadership required to put an end to illegal activity once and for all. We've heard calls for a more forward looking and enlightened approach before-but it seems some in the shooting community have failed to listen and wildlife crime has continued.

    There are now calls from GWCT, BASC and others for Defra to publish their Hen Harrier Action Plan amid allegations from some that the RSPB are blocking its progress. In principle, we have no objection to its publication but it would be premature given that it has yet to be finalised and a number of key points have yet to be resolved. We have worked hard to seek an agreement that resolves the harrier-grouse conflict, which delivers many more harriers, and is balanced, legal and effective. The RSPB needs to see:

    a) Zero-tolerance of illegal persecution from all stakeholders,

    b) State support for Detective-level Wildlife Crime Officers to tackle incidents of illegal persecution wherever they occur,

    c) The deployment of 'diversionary feeding' wherever harriers settle on moors.

    d) Reassurance that any brood management scheme will only be trialled once hen harrier numbers have recovered to a pre-agreed level, and after less interventionist approaches, particularly diversionary feeding, have been implemented thoroughly. The Joint Nature Conservation Committee (who provide advice on nature conservation to the UK Government) suggests that there is habitat for 323–340 pairs of hen harriers in England.

    With a more recent study co-authored by GWCT suggesting English grouse moors can support 70 pairs of hen harriers with little impact on their businesses and with only three pairs nesting successfully this year, brood management may be some way off yet. But getting started with a recovery plan to deliver the 70 pairs of harriers looks overdue to me.

    We now want Defra to take the lead and finalise the plan by the end of this calendar year (incorporating the points above) so that a detailed roadmap for recovery of the hen harrier in England can be financed and up and running by the start of the next breeding season.

  • Squaring up to our food and farming challenges

    I'm on holiday this week, so I've lined up Dan Crossley, Executive Director at Food Ethics Council, for a this guest blog post.

    The RSPB is among ten organisations that have come together to call for a more integrated approach to policy across food, farming, the environment and public health. In a new report, 'Square Meal: why we need a new recipe for the future', we set out a different vision for food and farming. The Food Ethics Council is a fellow contributor to Square Meal report.

    Summer is in full swing in the UK. People are out enjoying the sunshine. Schools are shut. Parliament is closed. Commuter trains are quieter than normal. Life rumbles on at a slightly slower pace.

    In contrast, our food and farming systems continue apace – and the challenges posed by ‘business as usual’ in the way our food is produced and consumed aren’t getting any smaller.

    Thirty three percent of under 18s in the UK are overweight or obese; many hundreds of thousands of our citizens are struggling to be able to afford to eat and we’ve lost 44 million pairs of breeding birds in less than 50 years.

    That’s why I have a food-related summer plea – which comes in three parts

    Firstly, when you’re tucking into your next summer meal, pause for a minute and think about what’s gone into making that burger, salad or sandwich.

    Think about the water needed for the ingredients to grow, the ecosystem services (like pollinators) that the ingredients depend on, the energy needed to process it, the labour that’s gone into growing and making the food and the oil needed to transport it all.

    For a few minutes, try putting yourself in the shoes of one of those key ‘actors’ that have helped make your meal – whether it be a farmer, the land, a food manufacturer or a retailer. How does that make you think differently about the food you’re eating?

    Secondly (if that’s got you thinking more about food), please look at our recently published Square Meal report.

    Spoiler alert…. It’s a bunch of NGOs (and academics) calling for, amongst other things, an overhaul of food and farming policy, a long-term vision, more joined-up policy around food and farming, greater collaboration and strong leadership from government.

    So, what’s new, you might wonder?

    Well for me, what’s exciting and hugely powerful is that it’s the first time the 10 organisations involved have come together in this way (to list them in full, it’s the Food Research Collaboration, the RSPB, the Food Ethics Council, Sustain, the Wildlife Trusts, the Soil Association, the National Trust, Eating Better, Friends of the Earth and Compassion in World Farming).

    We have our differences, but we’ve put them to one side here, because we all want food and farming systems that deliver for people, animals and the environment – for the long-term.

    Thirdly, please go beyond summer reading and actively join in the Square Meal debate. If you care about your natural environment, your health and wellbeing, the welfare of animals, and the fair treatment of those working in producing and selling our food, we’d love to hear your views.

    We shouldn’t underestimate the power of our collective voices. If we all come together and show government how public health, conservation, and social and environmental concerns and their solutions go hand in hand, imagine how much better our food and farming systems could be.

    The Food Ethics Council works to build fair and resilient food systems that respect people, animals and the planet, by helping food businesses, government and civil society address ethical concerns at the heart of decision-making about food and farming.

  • Hen Harriers: two things

    I am going on holiday tomorrow: travelling with the family by train to the Pyrenees.  Lucky me.

    Before I go I wanted to do two things.

    First, to wish people well for a successful Hen Harrier Day on Sunday.  Although I will not be able to join the hundreds of people that plan to participate in the rallies.  I do plan to join the thousands of people that I hope take part through social media (so-called 'thunderclap').  This is a great opportunity to highlight the plight of this wonderful species and put a spotlight on illegal killing.

    Second, to thank all those that have helped with our hen harrier nest operations this year.  Compared to last year’s disastrous breeding season, it has been pleasing to be able to report three successful nests in England. 

    This could not have happened without the support from volunteers, local raptor workers, and staff from the RSPB and other organisations, who have spent countless hours walking the hills in search of harriers and have diligently reported their hen harrier sightings to the hen harrier hotline, aiding the coordination of efforts by all.

    We owe thanks too, to the organisations which have supported this work, which include United Utilities, Natural England (especially for providing satellite tags), the Forestry Commission, the AONBs including Forest Of Bowland AONB, the National Trust, the National Park Authorities, the Police Forces, Northern England Raptor Forum, Derbyshire Wildlife Trust, the Moorland Association, Defence Estates, Ribble Valley Borough Council, Lancashire County Council, and finally, the BBC for featuring the hotline on recent Autumn/Winter/Spring-watch programmes.

    We also owe a big thanks to the dauntless volunteers and staff who have watched over the Bowland nests night and day in all weathers and the estate’s farming and shooting tenant who funded the diversionary feeding. 

    I have previously written that it is ridiculous that in 21st century England, we have to mount 24 hour surveillance 7 days a week to protect these nests. But we do - thanks to the tireless efforts of these brilliant people.

    All those that take part in Hen Harrier day on Sunday look forward to the day when persecution (and therefore nest protection) is consigned to history and hen harriers can fly freely over the moors of England once more.

    And finally, there may be one or two guest appearances on this blog while I am away.  I look forward to blogging for nature again later in the month.