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
  • What a wonderful world

    It's cold, the days are getting shorter, man-flu will soon set in for the winter and so I am on the look out for good news to lift the gloom.

    Here then are 25 positive stories which have been compiled by my colleague Andy Evans who heads our Nature Recovery Unit.  This reflects the fantastic work that we have done with a huge range of partners for a large number of species.

    So, if you need cheering up, just sit back, start humming Louis Armstrong's "What a Wonderful World" and read some of the highlights from the RSPB's conservation efforts this year.. 

    1) The recovery of bittern continues - this year there were 70 confirmed nests more than half of which were on RSPB reserves.

    2) Worker short-haired bumblebees were found at Dungeness proving that the reintroduced queens had bred.

    3) Three pairs of black-winged stilt bred in 2014. One at our new Medmerry reserve raised 4 young, less than a year after the seawall was breached!

    4) As a result of mink eradication at RSPB Insh Marshes water voles have returned after an absence of 20 years.

    5) This was the final year of crane school and the class of 2014 graduated with flying colours to join a flock of more than 70 now gracing the Somerset Levels.

    6) The Disney Fund have given $25,000 for work on European eel. This will secure management at 3 key RSPB reserves  as well as education, survey and interpretation work.

    7) Corncrakes had a record breaking year: 2014 saw 1,316 calling males in GB & IoM. The highest number since our conservation programme began and the reintroduced population in England increased 3 fold.

    8) The stone-curlew LIFE+ project is bearing fruit. A 3,300ha agri-environment agreement on Ministry of Defence land in Norfolk should restore essential grass-heath for nesting birds and other wildlife.

    9) More than 30 spikes of Irish lady’s tresses were found at Portmore Lough. The first time they have been recorded at that reserve.

    10) The cirl bunting reintroduction to Cornwall is going well. The population increased from 28 to 39 pairs, which produced over 100 fledglings.

    11) In 2013 Western Isles corn buntings crashed from 76 to 49 pairs. We deployed emergency winter feeding stations and in 2014 the population recovered to 56 pairs.

    12) A raft of new SPA/MPA designations in Scotland and Wales will afford much needed protection for species like gannets, the outrageously long-lived ocean quahog, the critically important lesser sandeel, shags,  the black guillemot (or tystie), the harbour porpoise, kittiwakes and puffins.




    13) The LIFE+ little tern project has had a fantastic first year. Increased wardening helped secure bumper productivity at 6 sites.

    14) Eradication of rats on St Agnes and Gugh had immediate effect, with the first records of Manx shearwater chicks in living memory.

    15) The first storm petrels bred on Lundy 10 years after RSPB led rat eradication.

    16) Lapwing pairs increased on reserves for the second year running and productivity of fenced sites was (on average!) 1.2 chicks per pair. This is enough to fuel population expansion in the future.

    17) The RSPB is gearing up to tackle the declines in curlew down 45% in breeding abundance between 1995 and 2011.

    18) Seven pairs of Montagu’s harriers nested in England and with RSPB organised nest protection, raised 17 young.

    19) There are now too many white-tailed eagles in Scotland to count! With over 80 pairs including 14 new pairs on the West coast and 4 on the East, we have moved to sample monitoring.

    20) Red kites continue to soar high the latest BBS shows an increase of 805% since 1995.

    21) In 2013, no hen harriers nested in England but in 2014 they returned with four nests.  Serious problems remain, but we remain committed to ensuring this fabulous bird is able to fly free from harm.

    22) An autumn survey in Rudong, China located 225 spoon-billed sandpipers -  c.75% of the world population! Knowing where the birds are will help us address the threats

    23) Plans have been drawn up for the first releases of captive bred Gyps vultures in India. We are winning the war against diclofenac and creating safe areas for the birds

    24) Through the continued efforts of the Albatross Task Force mitigation measures are working around the globe with a 99% reduction in bycatch in South Africa!

    25) The cat eradication on Ascension is bearing fruit with seabird populations rapidly increasing.

    I hope you kept humming and enjoyed the snippets of success.  These were achieved thanks to the dedication and professionalism of our staff working with our fabulous partners.  Here's to even more conservation success next year.


    Photo credits

    Bittern – Andy Hay (
    Short-haired bumblebee Nikki Gammans
    Water-vole – Danny Green (
    Crane school – Nick Upton (
    European eel – uncredited - Wikipedia
    Swift – Earnie Janes (
    Corncrake - (
    Stone curlew – Chris Gomersall (
    Irish lady’s tresses – uncredited –
    Cirl bunting – Andy Hay (
    Corn bunting – Andy Evans
    Grassholm – David Wotton (
    Gannet – Andy Hay (
    Lesser sandeel –– Mark Thomas (
    Black guillemot – Chris Gomersall (
    Harbour porpoise  - Genevieve Leaper (
    Little tern with eggs – Andy Hay (
    Little tern with chicks – Kevin Simmonds
    Manx shearwater in flight – Genevieve Leaper (
    Manx shearwater chick – Isle of Scillies Seabird Recovery Project
    Storm petrel – Chris Gomersall (
    Lapwing adult – Andy Hay (
    Lapwing chick – Mike Land (
    Curlew – Andy Hay (
    Montagu’s harrier – Roger Tidman (
    White-tailed eagle – Peter Cairns (
    Red kite – Chris Gomersall (
    Hen harrier – Andy Hay (
    Albatross – Cleo Small
    Frigate birds – Ian Fisher

  • Fact or fiction?

    Despite what an article by Robin Page in today’s Daily Telegraph may lead you to believe, we’re doing a lot for red squirrel conservation, have been for a number of years and plan to continue with this work. In fact, we hope to do even more, but only in those areas on the front line of red squirrel conservation where practical measures will help boost numbers.

    We are quite rightly playing our part, with others, to step up efforts to help recover this much loved and threatened species. Indeed, this is what many people - some in very high places - have been calling on us to do for a number of years.  

    As a columnist, Robin has the right to be challenging. But I think that his readers also have the right to know the truth.  Robin can be funny, disarming but his fiction about the RSPB wears thin.

    It is also wearisome to be contacted by people that want information for an article they are writing and then willfully ignore the information we supply.

    On the 23 October, our press office sent Robin an email with all the details of the work we’re involved in, after he requested the information in his capacity as a journalist.  The information is also on our website for all to see and can be quickly found with a search in Google. That’s why I find it extremely odd that Robin says he received ‘no answers or information whatsoever’ from us and he ‘can find no evidence of the RSPB doing anything to help red squirrels

    Red squirrel at RSPB's nature reserve at Loch Garton by Andy Hay (

    His article – as ever designed to cause mischief – also refers to our campaign, Vote For Bob.  It’s great that our campaign to get nature on the political agenda ahead of the General Election next year is getting talked about. As Robin rightly points out, Bob has more than 100,000 votes and almost 50 MPs backing him, which we’re absolutely chuffed about!  And, thank you Robin for promoting it once again.  I hope that it encourages more people to back Bob and urge politicians to develop strong commitments to nature in their manifestos.

    Unfortunately, that’s the only thing the ‘journalist’ did get right, because again, despite being sent information from our press office and it all being easily accessible online, the Vocal Yokel (as he refers to himself) decided to describe it as a ‘cynical marketing ploy’ – intentionally missing the point of the campaign to make his latest RSPB-bashing feature more salacious.

    Robin goes on to say that what he finds irritating is the fact that he is having to write about this.

    The feeling’s mutual.

  • A silver lining to the cloud of attacks on the RSPB

    I am not sure that it was particularly wise for the Countryside Alliance to attempt to stir up negative PR against the RSPB regarding our latest issue of Birdcrime

    Why? Because... allows us to confirm the professional way in which our team works with the police and the public to detect and document incidents of illegal activity and

    ...if the complaint gets the oxygen of publicity then once again people will read or hear about illegal killing of birds of prey by those linked to the shooting community.

    For the record, this is what we have been saying in response to the criticism...

    It is disappointing that Countryside Alliance has chosen to dispute the figures presented within the Birdcrime report.  Surely it would be smarter to welcome the report and then challenge the shooting community to root out those within it who commit criminal offences against protected birds of prey.  

    As stated in the Birdcrime report, the data provide an annual snapshot of reported crimes and convictions but cannot ever be a definitive record of the totality of illegal bird of prey killing.  In the same way, the number of convictions for speeding does not represent the total number of people that speed while driving. What Birdcrime does prove is that the illegal killing of birds of prey is still a widespread practice and is continuing long after these birds received legal protection. We make it very clear in Birdcrime that, because of the small sample size and the fact that offences are often committed in some of the wildest areas of Britain, detection rates will always be low and are really the tip of a much larger iceberg.

    A much more complete picture of the impact of these crimes is assessed through rigorous scientific studies, such as a 2012 paper on peregrine nesting success in northern England. This and other documents, such as the Government’s own framework reports on hen harrier and golden eagle, underline the role that grouse moors play in reducing the numbers of birds of prey in some of our most iconic landscapes.

    The statistics presented in Birdcrime represent reported or confirmed cases of persecution against birds of prey. The strongest motive for killing birds of prey come from those with interests in game management. Sometimes even we are staggered at the extent of the killing. In 2007 the RSPB was contacted by two gamekeepers about the activities of another keeper on a shooting estate in Shropshire. Following an investigation, a vermin book was recovered detailing the killing of over 100 buzzards within one six-month period: many more than the number of buzzards that were formally confirmed as illegally killed for the whole UK in 2007 in the Birdcrime report. The head keeper and assistant keeper were subsequently convicted for offences under the Wildlife & Countryside Act.

    It is time the Countryside Alliance moved from denial to leadership. Law-abiding shooting estates and gamekeepers have nothing to fear from the RSPB, but we will not shy away from highlighting the bad practices associated with shooting when we have the evidence to do so.

    As Martin Harper clearly states in his foreword to this year’s Birdcrime report: “We look forward to uniting with the organisations which are opposed to illegal persecution, and bringing forward the changes needed to ensure legitimate businesses are free from association with this dark shadow that hangs over the shooting community. Together we can finally consign bird of prey persecution to the history books."