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
  • The Hen Harrier Action Plan – two big unanswered questions

    The content of the Hen Harrier Action Plan has once again been subject to much commentary through social media (see here and here) .  This was triggered by news that another conservation organisation, the Hawk and Owl Trust, has agreed to run an experiment to test a scheme known as brood management.

    This is not the way to formulate policy in a highly contested area and it reinforces my view that the brood management scheme should have been put out to public consultation.  There is little trust between the grouse and raptor communities and I fail to see how deals done behind closed doors will instill confidence.

    Our position on the Action Plan and the proposed brood management scheme – see here - has not changed.

    We believe brood management could merit experimental investigation in the future, but only once hen harrier numbers have recovered to a pre-agreed level and less interventionist approaches, particularly diversionary feeding, have been widely attempted.

    We think that’s reasonable, given that it gives estates a chance to tackle impacts through diversionary feeding, and puts the beleaguered hen harrier first by giving the species a chance to recover naturally.

    Those designing or promoting the plan will have to answer a number of questions to carry public confidence (we've posed 25), but by far and away the most important ones are...

    1. What are the objectives of the trial?

    2. What is the legal basis for carry out such a trial?

    The former matters because a trial is a trial – it is designed to test a proposition and report on whether it was successful.  The latter – well, you’d want any scheme to operate within the law wouldn’t you?  But, given there is a proven and less interventionist way of reducing predation of grouse by hen harriers (ie diversionary feeding) or reducing illegal killing (ie stop illegal killing), I remain unclear as to how a trial would respect protected species legislation.

    While all of this is rumbling on, I thought it would be useful to reiterate what we should all be trying to achieve i.e. recovery of one England’s most threatened species.

    Back in 2011, the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) published ‘A Conservation Framework for Hen Harriers in the United Kingdom’ . The JNCC provides the Government with advice on nature conservation issues. The document sets out targets for what is known as favourable conservation status and identifies the constraints acting on hen harrier populations across the UK. But, what is this so-called favourable conservation status and what does it mean?

    The wording in the EU Birds Directive and Habitats Directive is the key. They say that ‘‘conservation status of a species means the sum of the influences acting on the species concerned that may affect the long-term distribution and abundance of its populations’’ and that ‘‘the conservation status will be taken as ‘favourable’ when:

    • population dynamics data on the species indicate that it is maintaining itself on a long-term basis as a viable component of its natural habitats;
    • the natural range of the species is neither being reduced nor is likely to be reduced for the foreseeable future; and
    • there is, and will probably continue to be, a sufficiently large habitat to maintain its populations on a long-term basis.’’

    Favourable conservation status does not mean that when criteria are reached populations can be capped or managed through culling. It simply defines a ‘safety net’ to ensure populations, like that of the hen harrier in England, do not drop below dangerous threshold and when they do, that urgent action should be taken to seek recovery.

    In the current JNCC Framework, regional targets for favourable conservation status were set as follows:

    • A minimum of 1.2 young fledged per breeding attempt; • at least 44% of the apparently suitable habitat occupied; and
    • a density (number of pairs per 100 km2) threshold of 2.12 pairs per 100 km2 of suitable habitat.

    Based on an estimate of 6,636 km2 of habitat, this suggests that England should be supporting at least 61 pairs to achieve favourable conservation status. Yet, based on the total area of suitable habitat available and the best available data at the time, the authors estimated that the potential English population could be as high as 323-340 pairs.  I understand that a second version of the JNCC Framework is to be published soon.  We'll see if the numbers change.

    In 2014, there were only four successful hen harrier nests in England. So, whether you agree with JNCC’s criteria or not, we have a very long way to go to reach their estimate for favourable conservation status and even further if these birds were left to settle and breed in the areas where they should be an integral part of our countryside. Whatever methods Defra decides to back in the Hen Harrier Action Plan, we believe the test of its success will be the recovery of the hen harrier across all suitable habitat and that this should be the ultimate objective.

    The RSPB will work with everyone who wants to secure favourable conservation status and then build on that to secure full recovery across suitable habitat. That’s why we support the majority of the Defra-lead Hen Harrier Action Plan (the actions that tackle illegal persecution threat directly and promote diversionary feeding) and are stepping up our own efforts through our new EU LIFE+ funded project. You can read more about this new and exciting project and how you can get involved at


  • 100 days to go

    I hope you enjoyed Big Garden Birdwatch this weekend.  Hundreds of thousands of people (including at least three Harpers recording 11 species) gave up an hour of their time to count the birds in their garden.  What's more, Cambridge United and Arsenal are both in the hat for the fifth round draw of the FA Cup.  What a great weekend.

    Anyone that cares about wildlife should also care about politics.  The decisions that our politicians make affect the wildlife and wild places we love - through laws, policies, taxation and funding.

    So with 100 days to go until the General Election, I thought I'd whet your appetite for the weeks of campaigning ahead.

    It sounds as though the TV debates will happen, perhaps with an extraordinary line up of different politicians in different combinations, on different channels.

    Which made me think. Just imagine...

    Ben Andrew's spectacular picture of a kingfisher.  Here's hoping politicians show their best in the election campaign.

    Welcome to the first TV debate for nature!

    Q: Party leader, in 2020, at the end of the next Parliament, what will your legacy be?

    A: This will be the Government that turned round the decline in biodiversity and tackled climate change thereby safeguarding our natural assets for our children and grandchildren.

    We would introduce a Nature and Wellbeing Act, with a long-term plan for restoring biodiversity in a generation. It would include new rules to hold the Government to account for making sure that all departments are focused on sustainable use of our natural world.

    As we celebrate 800 years from Magna Carta and 750 years of the House of Commons, the story our children tell of the next five years will be the Government that established a new, mature relationship between people, planet and Parliament - we learnt to live in harmony. We will no longer take more from nature than we need, as we do now for short-term profit and political gain, but recognise that we all depend on nature and need to invest in our natural environment to continue to benefit from it and delight in it.

    Q: Investing? That sounds expensive.

    A: Well, we certainly have to recognise that if we want to have a healthy environment, we will need to invest in it. At least €5.8 billion per year will be needed to manage and restore nature across the EU. For the UK, some estimates put the total costs of meeting the Aichi biodiversity targets at around £2 billion per year, which is three times the existing annual agri-environment budget.

    But think of the rewards! Who wouldn’t agree that saving a species from extinction is priceless?

    But if you do need convincing more, the ecosystem services provided by the EU Natura 2000 Network are estimated to be worth around €200–300 billion per year, (or 2 % to 3 % of EU GDP). That’s many times greater than the actual cost of managing the network in the first place.

    What’s more, environmentally-sound decision-making is good for the economy. All of our economic activity depends, ultimately, on the natural world. Yet we continue to degrade our natural assets at an unsustainable rate, as the Natural Capital Committee has shown. In the UK, we would introduce an Office for Environmental Responsibility. It would be an independent, expert body to hold the Government to account for restoring nature, but also to offer authoritative advice, helping every Government Department to act in a way that will enhance our natural assets, rather than continue to build up an ecological debt—like an Office for Budget Responsibility for the natural world.

    Q: Can you give me an example?

    A: One simple illustration is how we spend money in the agricultural sector. Last year, the Government had the chance to move money from direct subsidies, to payments that would reward farming that provide things which benefit the public - such as a countryside rich in wildlife to which people have access.

    In 2017, the chance will come again and, if you take into account all the public benefits that the change would provide, the calculation is clear -  we must transfer the maximum amount from direct subsidies (pillar 1) to payments for providing public benefits (pillar 2). Do this and there would be a few hundred million of extra cash to spend on wildlife friendly farming.

    Q: And where does healthcare come in this vision?

    A: I’m glad you asked. Providing a healthy natural world is really important for our health too.

    At the moment our healthcare system is focused on palliative care, spending money to make people better after they get ill. But with an aging and increasingly sedentary population, those costs are growing higher every year. That’s one of the reasons why the NHS is under pressure.

    Natural England has estimated that by providing access to quality natural greenspace for everyone, we could save an amazing £2.1 billion a year—by delivering natural, preventative care. Just helping people get walking, connecting with nature can help to prevent conditions like heart disease and type 2 diabetes. It can also improve people’s mental health and wellbeing.

    It’s important to note that this is often a question of equality too. We often think of environmental inequality as a Victorian problem, with smoky chimneys and crowded factories. But it’s still the poorest and most vulnerable people who tend to have least access to a quality environment, and that has impacts on their health. We would introduce a basic standard for access to quality greenspace for everyone.

    Q: Now, on to the serious subject of gun crime. What will stop this growing menace?

    A: It’s extraordinary that we still face illegal persecution of wildlife in this country.

    In 2013, we received 164 reports of shooting and destruction of birds of prey.

    We would introduce a licensing system for driven grouse shoots. For most, the burden would be light, just a small charge to cover the costs of the system. But where illegal activity persists, licences for shoots would be revoked and fines levied. It’s not acceptable for people to get away with this kind of serious crime any longer.

    Q: What is your take on immigration?

    A: We welcome diversity and delight in the variety of life in the UK. Don’t forget, we are responsible for all the amazing wildlife in the UK Overseas Territories, as well as UK wildlife. Did you know there are more penguins in British territory than anywhere else in the world?

    As the climate changes, we are bound to see the arrival of new species on our shores and the establishment of infrequent visitors, as their ranges expand. However, the same changes will also put some British species at risk, like the endemic Scottish crossbill, or the capercaille, which may face increasingly inhospitable conditions.  Science tells us that we must we maintain and enhance existing protected areas for wildlife today but also for climate colonisers like Great White Egret, Spoonbill, Bee-eaters and Hoopoe.  They're on their way and we should do everything we can to be hospitable.

    The other big landmark this year is the 200th anniversary of The Treaty of Paris, which brought the nations of Europe together to end the Napoleonic Wars. This year, we need a new Treaty of Paris bringing together all the nations of the world to beat climate change. It must focus—as always—on a strong global deal for mitigating climate change, but also on the importance of adapting to our changing world.

    However, I should also note that not all visitors are benign. The arrival of invasive, non-native species is one of the biggest threats to biodiversity—species like the harlequin ladybird, the signal crayfish and the water hyacinth. We welcome new powers in the Infrastructure Bill for dealing with these damaging guests and will crack down on border controls to make sure that no more are allowed in.

    Q: You mentioned penguins – what would your foreign policy be like?

    A: Over 90% of British biodiversity is in our Overseas Territories, but we aren’t doing enough to protect it. In fact, we barely know what’s out there.

    On this, the 100th Anniversary of Ascension Island, we would declare a Marine Protected Area around the Island. Ascension has no permanent population, but it’s home to some of the world’s most important species: the 2nd largest green turtle nesting site in the Atlantic, nurseries for humpback whales and tropical seabird breeding stations.

    The other main pillar of our foreign policy would be preserving and fully implementing the EU Birds and Habitats Directives. These laws have been the foundation of protection for nature in the UK for decades, but the prevailing deregulatory zeal is putting them in danger. The Directives deliver benefits for the public, certainty for business and the best protection for wildlife. We must work to deliver them fully, not undermine them.

    Well, your time is up for today, Party Leader: we’ve heard about a Nature and Wellbeing Act, an international climate deal, and action to combat serious crime. I know that our viewers will be looking forward to seeing it happen.

    Thank you!

    You can wake up now. 

    Of course, these are all weighty and complex subjects and, nature can’t solve all the serious social and economic problems we have to face.

    But I hope you agree that protecting our natural world has a role to play in many of the biggest challenges faced by all the political parties. Protecting our natural world needs to be at the core of every manifesto, not just a box to be ticked. With 100 days to go, let’s call on all parties to take the chance to tell us how protection of the natural world will be part of their programme for better government. 

    And you can start by voting for Bob.

  • 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)