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 has the EU ever done for wildlife?

    Following on from the tremendous public response to the consultation on the future of the Nature Directives, in which 520,325 people told European leaders not to weaken them – I’m delighted to welcome Dr Paul Donald, Principle Conservation Scientist at the RSPB, to talk about his latest research that proves just how effective the Birds Directive is.

    The European Union is under pressure like never before. Growing discontent about being “ruled” from Brussels and the threat of a Greek exit from the Eurozone have raised questions about what the EU is really good for. Well, here is one thing it is good for: conserving wildlife. A bold claim, but one we can now prove. But first, a little background. All Member States of the EU have to adopt two world-leading pieces of conservation legislation – the 1979 EU Birds Directive and the 1992 EU Habitats Directive. These Directives place a responsibility on all members of the EU, ourselves included, to protect the most threatened species and the most important sites, and together they form the cornerstone of EU conservation policy. The Directives set common standards and common goals that all countries must achieve, thus uniting and strengthening conservation policy across the 4 million square kilometres and 500 million people of the EU.

    But do they actually work? This is a surprisingly difficult question to answer. For example, how can we tell how well species are doing, when information on their numbers is so sparse? And how is it possible to isolate the contribution of the Directives when there are so many other changes buffeting wildlife populations, such as a warming climate? In the case of the Birds Directive, however, we have been able to address these problems.

    In a paper published today in the journal Conservation Letters, by scientists from the RSPB Centre for Conservation Science, BirdLife International and Durham University, we analysed the long-term and short-term population trends of all Europe’s bird species using a new dataset collected as part of EU members’ reporting requirements under the Directives (much of it by thousands of volunteers across Europe, so a great example of the power of citizen science). Our aim was to assess whether species identified by the Birds Directive as being of particular concern and therefore requiring special conservation measures, so-called Annex I species, have fared any better than species not listed on Annex I - while at the same time accounting for the impacts of other factors such as climate change, migration strategy and habitat preference.

    The results were unequivocal – no matter how hard we tried to find other explanations for the patterns we found, we could not escape the conclusion that Annex I species have done very significantly better than the average. Furthermore, they have done better in countries that have been in the EU, and so under the protection of the Directive, for longer. Good news indeed that we have in place an international conservation policy that actually works for our more threatened species, but there is, inevitably, a cloud on the horizon.

    At the request of the President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Junker, the Directives are currently being subjected to a detailed review. Many conservationists see this review as a prelude to weakening the Directives. It would be utterly perverse if this were to happen when we now have such strong scientific evidence that these may be among the most successful international conservation agreements anywhere in the world.

    Dr Paul F Donald, Principal Conservation Scientist, RSPB Centre for Conservation Science

  • Some holiday reading

    By the time you read this I shall be safely ensconced in our hut (probably sheltering from the rain) on the Northumberland coast. For company, as well as my wife and children, I shall take Mike Pratt’s new book Wild Northumbria. It will inspire me to explore more of the best county in England.

    Before I run away on leave, there are few things to note.

    First, I was delighted that our campaign to defend the nature directives reached a remarkable milestone over the weekend with half a million standing up for nature by responding to the European Consultation on the future of the EU Nature Directives. The weight of response to the public consultation from European citizens surely will make the Commission think twice before weakening the Directives. And, it has been inspiring to be part of a strong and powerful NGO coalition across Europe as well as across the UK.

    Second, the latest set of indicators about the state of Natural Environment in England were released, rather quietly, on Thursday. Have a look of them, they don’t make palatable reading for anyone interested in nature. They provide further evidence that we are collectively failing nature. Given the free services that nature gives us, in turn, this undermines our own prosperity. Last week’s announcement of further cuts in public spending clearly will not help. Yet, through our own practical conservation we know what needs to be done and we need political will to reboot conservation efforts. Let’s begin by properly implementing wildlife laws, bolstering our nature conservation agencies, support local communities who want to give nature a home and ensure that existing budgets, like those for farming, work harder for nature.

    Third, I was dismayed by the process which led to the decision to grant an 'emergency authorisation' to allow the use of neonicotinoids (see my colleague Ellie Crane's blog here).  Thus is a highly emotive subject and we expect much higher standards of transparency I the decision-making process.

    Finally, for the first time in years, I shall miss Game Fair. This will be the latest opportunity for us to reach out to those in the shooting community that want to work with us to restore our uplands, address burning on peatlands and protect threatened species such as hen harrier and curlew. My boss Mike Clarke and our Scottish Director Stuart Housden, will be leading our conversations and if you are attending, please do pop by our stand for a chat.

    By then, my predecessor’s book Inglorious will be published making the case for a ban on grouse shooting. Mark Avery has also now launched a new petition to support his campaign (see here). As a result, I have received calls on the RSPB to support this petition. Given the damage caused by intensive driven grouse shooting, I understand the support for such a petition. But the RSPB continues to focus on improving enforcement of the law and we believe licensing grouse shoots is one potential way of helping this while vicarious liability is another.  Our full position can be read here.  We think it is really important that the grouse industry gets its house in order or calls for a ban will only grow.

    My colleague, Jeff Knott, will be talking more on our commitment to saving hen harriers at Hen Harrier Day (which I shall once again miss because of the timing of my leave).  I would encourage anyone who cares about hen harriers to attend the event in the Goyt Valley (see here)

    Please do keep an eye on this blog while I am away. I have arranged for a few guest blogs including a series focusing our attempts to ‘unlock wonderfulness’ through our nature reserves.

    Have a wonderful few weeks and I look forward to seeing some of you at Bird Fair next month.

  • Why we have called for a national gull summit

    Last Friday, the Prime Minister David Cameron called for a big conversation around gulls following highly publicised tragic incidents involving the loss of pets to these birds.  Since then, there has been a huge amount of media attention on the relationship between gulls and humans.

    As I wrote in an article in the Telegraph today (see here), I think the PM's right.  There should be a conversation too, but like any conversation around a highly-charged issue it should bring together everyone in the search for a solution, while recognising there will be no quick fixes – this is going to be a long haul.

    Herring gull in close up by my colleague Grahame Madge rspb-images.com

    The ultimate aim of any conversation and subsequent action should focus on defusing the tensions between gulls and people in communities across the UK. Gulls should be revered for being part of the seaside experience, rather than being demonised for being troublesome neighbours.

    The numbers of gulls nesting on roofs in town and cities has been increasing since it was first recorded over 70 years ago. However, among the flurry of wings and constant calling, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that gull numbers in the UK are falling alarmingly. The herring gull – the familiar ‘seagull’ – is declining since the 1970s and even since the year 2000, the UK has lost almost one third of nesting herring gulls.

    Yes numbers are rising in towns and cities (in places like Tynemouth where I shall be at the weekend), and even inland, but overall populations are crashing as their natural colonies on cliffs and rocky islands haemorrhage so quickly that they are in genuine need of conservation help.  Herring gulls feature on the Red List of the Birds of Conservation Concern in the UK.  As a nesting bird, the herring gull is confined to Europe, and within the European Union, the UK has the largest population (see here). The latest (June 2015) assessment of the status of birds in Europe and the European Union (see here) has listed the herring gull as “Vulnerable” on the IUCN’s EU red list, meaning there is a threat of extinction.

    Whether we like it or not we have a special responsibility for the herring gull.

    Listen to any radio phone in or scroll through any comments section on news articles and you will find many requests for a gull cull. Let’s think about that for a moment. With many pairs of herring gull in the UK nesting on someone’s roof, that’s a big and expensive programme that would result in the partial eradication of a threatened species, a measure which I would suggest would be unethical, unpalatable and probably illegal.

    If this isn’t a good enough reason to think again, there is another reason: it also wouldn’t work.

    Gulls are choosing to nest on our buildings for two principal reasons: access to high-rise real estate on which to rear their families above streets where these quick-witted scavengers can find an easy meal. Simply reducing their numbers in urban localities would create a vacuum, sucking more birds into problem areas to be controlled in the next culling program. This is insanity. You’d have to cull on a wide geographic scale year after year for the long term, which is both unsupportable and impractical.

    As a society, we have to have to turn the conversation towards long-term evidence based measures which will help reduce conflict. Then we can genuinely start to tackle the problem in ways which don’t endanger a threatened species and which set us on a better path to improving society's relationship with one of our most iconic and charismatic birds.

    To this end, yesterday I wrote to Defra and Natural England to propose a National Gull Summit, bringing together expertise from the wildlife sector, academics, local and national government to consider the issue and make proposals; to look not only at urban areas, but also how we can best look after our wider marine environment to support healthy seabird populations.

    This latter area is hugely important. The underlying issue we must address is that our seas and the wildlife which depend on them are in deep trouble. Delivering measures such as a coherent network of Marine Protected Areas will be a vital part of finding the right solution.

    There’s so much we need to learn about these birds, and this is a real opportunity to look at how we can live comfortably with our wild companions, and do the best for both birds and people.