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
  • This Valentine's Day, show the love... for seabirds and for success on the Scilly's

    This week, in the run up to Valentine's Day, people have been wearing their green hearts on their sleeve, their wrists, their schools, their football clubs, anywhere to show the love for the things that will be affected by climate change.  

    This is the second year that The Climate Change Coalition (of which the RSPB is a founder member) has inspired people to believe that we can protect the life we love from climate change.  Our motivation is simple - to create overwhelming public momentum for, and major political commitment to, action to combat climate change.

    The case for action was reinforced by a recent paper in Science (here) that reviewed 130 studies to identify the level of risk that climate change poses to wildlife.  The conclusion was that unless we take action to wean ourselves off fossil fuels, up to one in six of all species will be at risk of extinction.

    In the UK, we have particular concerns about our internationally important populations of seabirds.  Warming seas are disrupting the marine food web with sand eels disappearing due to dramatic changes in their plankton diet.  In turn, birds are not finding enough sandeel food to sustain them and their young.  Kittiwakes, arctic terns, guillemots (shown below in Andy Hay's fabulous photo) and shags are among the seabirds that depend on sandeels for adult and chick food and some colonies have experienced catastrophic declines.

    Yet, climate change is compounding many of the other threats that seabirds face including development at sea, fishing but also predation from non-native invasive species.  We have been particularly concerned by island colonies where rats have severely affected breeding seabird populations.

    This is why we are increasingly taking action in partnership with others to tackling invasive species.

    Following the success of eradication of rats on Lundy, we embarked on a project to reverse the declines in seabird populations on the Isles of Scilly through removal of rats from the islands of St Agnes and Gugh, and maintain the uninhabited islands rat-free.

    And today, we are delighted to report that St Agnes and Gugh are rat-free after passing a thorough month-long inspection two years after the last signs of rat activity were spotted.  This is a fantastic achievement and I would like to send huge congratulations to all those involved in the Isles of Scilly Seabird Recovery Project.  The team has already been buoyed by a response from the seabirds: since the removal of the rat population, the project team has observed both Manx shearwaters (see Chris Gomersall's image below) and storm petrels successfully breeding on the islands for the first time in living memory, with over 40 chicks being recorded on the islands in the last two years. 

    We are looking for similar results on the Shiants where we are embarking on a similar project (see here).

    So this weekend, please do wear your green heart on your sleeve (or your wrist) to show the love for the things that are affected by climate change.  But also, please also take heart that targeted conservation action can and has tackled other threats facing the wildlife we love. 

  • Why government should welcome loud voices for nature

    A few years ago, the RSPB produced a report outlining ten principles of sustainable development (here).  It might not have been the most exciting report we've ever produced but it provided a decent check-list to judge decision-making by governments across the UK.

    One of principles was that public participation was key to good decision-making. We argued that it was in government's interest to engage civil society, to hear the different views from different groups who held different views.  This principle is enshrined in UN's the Arhus Convention*.

    Charities and other NGOs have an important role to play, in channelling the views of the ‘person in the street’ to decision-makers, in participating in expert or technical groups and in monitoring the implementation of the legislation. They represent a broader public interest in the policy process.  From an environmental perspective, nature has no voice, so others like the RSPB of The Wildlife Trusts must speak up for it.

    I have, however, detected a little schizophrenia from government over the past week as to whether they are keen to hear from charities or would prefer them to be quiet.

    One the one hand, Defra seems to be going out of its way to seek the views of loads of different organisations as it develops both its 25 year plan for the natural environment and its response to the Cumbria floods.  

    On the other hand, news emerged over the weekend that Government was considering restricting the campaigning power of charities that receive government grants (see here).  The details seem hazy at this stage but the rhetoric is clear that public money should not be used for campaigning. 

    An aerial photo of the Thames - a landscape that is being transformed for people and wildlife through strong engagement of government, local people and charities (Rolf Williams

    In her impressive speech to the Institute for Government last week, Environment Secretary Liz Truss gave the clearest signal of what to expect from Defra's new strategy.  You can read it here.  I particularly liked the emphasis on improving engagement and direction from government locally. This has been lacking over the past few years and our experience tells us that transformational change only happens when local people rally around shared visions for their local landscapes while government remains actively engaged by lining up incentives and regulatory control. Defra will be piloting new approaches in three Cumbria catchment pilots and three other areas which they are calling pathfinder projects (for coastal, urban and large rural landscapes).  We and many others are looking forward to sharing our experience in these areas and want government to be successful at getting better outcomes for the natural environment.

    Yet, after this weekend's news about proposed new restrictions on campaigning, I am now not sure how keen government is to hear the views of civil society.   The Head of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, Sir Stuart Etherington, came out fighting at the weekend and said,

    "The new rules attached to grant income would appear to prevent charities from suggesting improvements or efficiencies to civil servants or ministers, or even from raising concerns with MPs... Indeed, several government departments have developed ‘strategic partner’ grant programmes specifically to enable them to access the expertise of charities to inform their policy development and delivery for these reasons.  This is tantamount to making charities take a vow of silence and goes against the spirit of open policy-making that this government has hitherto championed. We call on ministers to reconsider this draconian move that could have significant consequences for the charity sector’s relationship with government. I trust government will consult further on this".

    Most of the challenges that the nation faces require full engagement from all parts of society and I am convinced that decision making is enhanced when the views of as many parts of civil society as possible are listened to.  The last thing government needs is an imposed "vow of silence" from charities and I hope that the Government listens to Sir Stuart Etherington, goes back and thinks again.

    *The Arhus Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-Making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters was agreed in 1998 and ratified by the UK in 2005.  You can read more about its provisions here.

  • Show the love this Valentine's Day

    In the run  up to Valentine's Day, the RSPB has once again joined forces with WWF, Oxfam, the National Trust, the Women’s Institute and many other partners from The Climate Coalition to encourage people to think differently about climate change and to inspire them to act.  We are asking people to‪ Show the Love by watching and sharing a new 5 minute film featuring a letter written by Michael Morpurgo and starring Jeremy Irons and Maxine Peake (see below).  

    As with last year's film (here), we want to challenge people to think about how climate change will affect the things that we love the most - and for many that will include wildlife.

    The 70% decline in the UK kittiwake population has been linked to climate change (Andy Hay,

    Our report on the Nature of Climate Change highlighted the growing body of scientific evidence on the effects climate change is already having on Europe's wildlife.  The case for action will only become more compelling as the IPCC impacts report said in 2014 "It is well-established that the geographical extent of the damage or loss, and the number of systems affected, will increase with the magnitude and rate of climate change".

    The twin global challenges of biodiversity loss and climate change require systemic changes to our economy.  This means decoupling growth in our prosperity from environmental harm and doing more to reflect the value of nature in decision-making.  

    Even though we have made progress, most recently with the Paris climate deal struck last year, there is no doubt that these are life-long challenges.  Yet, dealing with them is the only way that we can learn to live in harmony with nature - the vision that is captured by the UN Convention on Biological Diversity.

    While we will continue to make a difference through our own practical conservation work, we also want to find new ways to inspire people to change their own behaviour, while also influencing governments and business to make it easier for more people to do the right thing.

    Last weekend more than half a million people spent an hour watching birds in their garden and contributing data to the world's largest wildlife survey - Big Garden Birdwatch.  This week, I hope that people watch the video about climate change and sign up to show their love for the things affected by climate change.  

    Most importantly, I hope that these activities inspire people to act: to help give nature a home and to tackle climate change.  You can find out more about the RSPB's work on climate change here.

    Enjoy the film.