Martin Harper's blog

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You might be surprised to read that our work is far broader than nature reserves and Big Garden Birdwatch. Read more about what else we do.

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
  • In celebration of the award-winning RSPB Dove Stone reserve

    One of the most enjoyable aspects of my role as Conservation Director of the RSPB is that I get the chance to share in some of the most inspiring and life-affirming conservation projects. Regularly I have to highlight the damage and threats that nature faces but today I want to celebrate a project that is living our dream of restoring our countryside and making it, once again, rich in nature. 

    In the heart of the Peak District lies our Dove Stone reserve and at a recent ceremony in Brussels our work to restore nature’s home in this dramatic landscape has won the conservation category of the 2016 Natura 2000 awards.

    RSPB Dove Stone -  good place to sit (Ben Hall: rspb-images.com)

    This is the third year of an award that was set up to recognise the excellence in the management of the network of protected sites across the European Union – the network is called ‘Natura 2000’.  This network was established by and is protected under the Nature Directives that we’ve been campaigning so hard to save. The network is made up of our finest wildlife sites including the Peak District Moors of which our Dove Stone reserve is a significant part.

    This major European award highlights something else that is very close to our heart – the power of partnerships. Our award for the project ‘Demonstrating the success in blanket bog restoration’ is shared with our partners United Utilities. Together we have been working with tenant farmers to restore the tattered moorland degraded by decades of damage.

    ‘Blanket bog’ is one of those terms beloved by ecologists but with less resonance amongst the millions of people who love our hills and moors. The peat that cloaks our highest land forms a blanket of life that supports characteristic plants and animals. The peat has taken thousands of years to form, built up from the preserved remains of plants, once this is exposed through overgrazing, drainage and burning the peat oxidizes and is prone to be washed away in time of heavy rain, all this on top of decades of industrial pollution which has taken its toll on the landscape.

    The resulting scarred landscape is a disaster for wildlife and bad news for us too. The peat-staining in our water is costly to remove and the peat that disappears through chemical oxidation ends up pumping carbon into our atmosphere, directly contributing to the risks of climate change.

    Blanket bog is also a very rare habitat globally emphasising the UK’s vital role its protection.

    Our work with United Utilities at Dove Stone started in 2010 and has involved planting up the bare areas of peat, repairing eroded gullies and sowing the peat-forming sphagnum mosses. It’s a work in progress but already we’re seeing dunlins, golden plovers, curlews and red grouse recovering. 

    Action to block drains to restore the peat of Dove Stone (Ben Hall: rspb-images.com)

    We’re proud of our Natura 2000 award but our progress is measured, as well, by the knowledge that the moors and hills of the Peak District are coming back to life. As the peat gradually recovers it will, in time, help to tackle climate change by locking up carbon and by improving the quality of our drinking water .

    At Dove Stone we’re putting our principles into practice and seeing great results. As I wrote, here, all is far from well across much of England’s moors. We are challenging the style of land management (designed to support driven grouse shooting) and have welcomed the legal challenge that the European Commission has launched into the widespread failure by the Westminster Government and its agencies to challenge the lack of  conservation of the upland Natura 2000 sites in England.

    Dove Stone shows that there is another way.

    I’ll leave the last word to Dave O’Hara, our site manager at Dove Stone, ‘We are delighted to have won the Natura 2000 Conservation Award and would like to say a big thanks to all our dedicated volunteers who have played a massive role in making this habitat restoration work a success. Although this is an international award, this is a very local project, which has depended on the dedication of local people who have braved the elements week in, week out to help start to return this part of the Peak District to its former glory.’   

  • Choices for nature: the RSPB’s vision for energy

    Tonight, I am helping to launch The RSPB’s 2050 Energy Vision - a new report showing how the UK could transform its energy system and meet its 2050 climate targets in harmony with nature whilst remaining affordable and secure. 

    I’m excited by this research as it helps us work out if we can have our cake and eat it ie a low carbon future that avoids harming the natural environment. 

    We were motivated to do this research for three reasons.

    First, climate change poses the greatest long term threat to wildlife: one in six species worldwide could go extinct by the end of the century if we carry on business as usual. This is why the RSPB has campaigned with others both domestically and internationally for high targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and wean our economies off fossil fuels.

    Second, we support the transition to a renewable energy future yet our experience is that poorly planned renewable projects can cause needless harm to wildlife.  In debates about wind farms, barrages and bioenergy, we have over the past twenty years had to fight hard to ensure wildlife impacts are taken into account in both design and deployment of schemes.

    As a consequence, we have huge experience of how to do things well and what to avoid.  For example, between 2010-2015, we responded to c1,000 wind farm applications and sustained objections 5% of these (recent examples include Strathy South, Forth and Tay, and Hornsea).  Yet, through dialogue with developers we can reduce impacts and even enhance the natural environment (for example at Blacklaw wind farm in Scotland where we’ve worked with the developer to restore habitat to benefit breeding waders and farmland birds). 

    Third, alongside individual site conversations, we have long argued for a more strategic approach for planning the renewables revolution.  As well as keeping energy supplies secure and affordable with fewer greenhouse gas emissions (the so-called energy trilemma) we want natural environment considerations to be respected and taken into account earlier in the decision-making process.

    Using data provided by a range of organisations including the Crown Estate, the BTO and Ecotricity, we’ve been able to map parts of the UK where technologies which harness the power of the wind, sun, wave and tides could be located with low levels of risk for sensitive species and habitats.  We’ve mapped these alongside physical constraints (such as housing, roads, railways, shipping lanes and other important infrastructure) and policy restrictions (for example protected landscapes or Ministry of Defence land). An example, for solar, is shown in the maps below.

    We then worked out the potential generating capacity of this ‘low ecological risk’ package of renewables, taken other land use needs (such as for food production) into account and, using the DECC energy calculator, constructed three scenarios about what our energy mix could look like in the future.

    The good news is that the UK has the potential to generate up to four times the UK’s current energy consumption through low ecological risk renewables: up to 6,277 TWh/yr* (the total final energy consumption in 2014 was 1661 TWh/yr).  In particular, our results show key opportunities further out to sea, where ecological sensitivities are likely to be lower.  This would require the commercialisation of deep-water technologies such as floating wind turbines.  We also found that there is significant scope for the continued deployment of onshore wind and solar farms with low risk for wildlife – which together could produce a quarter of the UK’s current total energy consumption with low ecological risk.

    The three different scenarios (shown on pages 18-22 of the report and shown below) for the UK’s energy future we developed were: 

    • A mixed renewables scenario, which includes a diverse mix of onshore and offshore technologies. This scenario assumes that carbon capture and storage is available to provide 21% of energy supply.
    • A high marine renewables scenario, which assumes that there is strong progress with offshore technologies such as wind (including floating wind turbines), wave and tidal power, but one where carbon capture and storage is not successfully commercialised
    • A high onshore scenario which assumes that floating wind is not available, and instead includes high levels of onshore wind and solar.  This scenario assumes that carbon capture and storage is available to provide 33% of energy supply.

    The scenarios forecast 56-88% of energy supply in the UK would come from renewable sources compared to 7% today (well, when the the latest annual figures were made available), which means that we'd be providing 89-91% low carbon energy by 2050 when energy using CCS technology is taken into account.  Moreover, a common feature across the three scenarios is the strong focus on energy efficiency and reducing overall energy demand, which reduces the overall need for new energy infrastructure which can pose risks to wildlife.

    But how much will this all cost?  The good news is that the cost estimates are similar to other pathways which are designed to tackle climate change.  The Decc calculator estimates that an energy system that doesn’t tackle climate change would cost £4,615 per person per year in 2050.  Other pathways that seeks to meet climate change targets would increase costs by an average of 9.3%.  Our scenarios have costs of 8.2%-9.5% above the scenario that doesn’t tackle climate change.  It’s worth remembering of course that there is a severe cost to climate inaction and a cost to damaging the natural environment.  The figures we’ve used ignore both these hidden costs.

    Knot flock by Ben Hall (rspb-images.com)

    The maps are not meant to be prescriptive and the scenarios are certainly not meant to provide a certain picture of the future.  We want, instead, to initiate a debate about what we need to do now to put us on the right path towards a low carbon future which avoids trading away the natural environment. 

    With this in mind, we have offered ten recommendations for governments across the UK to adopt including better use of spatial planning to avoid conflicts with nature conservation, major progress in key areas such as energy efficiency and low carbon innovation, and investment in better ecological data to guide decisions about where renewable energy developments can safely be deployed.

    As a society we have choices, we can either take action today to reduce the risk of climate change or wait to deal with the consequences.  By establishing the Climate Change Act 2008, the UK has chosen to take action to deliver a low carbon economy.  There is then a choice as to whether this low carbon pathway takes nature into account or not. 

    We think it is possible to have a UK energy system that is affordable, secure, low carbon and respects nature. We want and need governments across the UK to share this ambition.  The first opportunity to take this forward will be the plan that the UK Government will develop to deliver the UK’s Fifth Carbon Budget due next month.

    I think that the team behind this report have done a great job and I congratulate them.  Its success, however, will be judged by the conversations it triggers and ultimately the responses by governments. 

    Please do have a read and let me know what you think.

    It would be great to hear your views.

    *TWHr/yr refers to terawatt hours (1012 watt-hours) of electrical energy per year. 

  • Thinking big, thinking about Dartmoor

    When I think of the uplands of England, my mind usually heads north.  So I enjoyed a couple of days a fortnight ago experiencing the southern uplands on Dartmoor.  The visit was a chance to catch up with research our team is doing with others (Exeter University, Dartmoor National Park Authority, Natural England and Devon Birds) to diagnose the reasons for the major declines in summer migrants including cuckoo, whinchat, wood warbler and pied flycatcher.

    John Bridges' image of a cuckoo (rspb-images.com) and cuckoo breeding distribution maps from Devon Bird Atlas (bottom left 1988, top right 2007-13) showing a massive contraction in range

    The uplands of the south west are the same but different from those in the north.  The habitats are familiar - blanket bog, heather and grass moors with deep wooded valleys - but Dartmoor (shown below) has its own distinctive cultural heritage, land use and wildlife to match.  There is no driven grouse shooting down south but there are still plenty of challenges such as managing levels of grazing, swaling (a Devonian term for the tradition of burning gorse), and lots and lots of visitors.

    The significance of Dartmoor to the wildlife of the Devon was highlighted with the publication last year of the Devon Bird Atlas.  Many species’ ranges (like cuckoo and whinchat) have retreated to Dartmoor – at 954 square kilometres it is the largest chunk of semi-natural habitat in the county.  These trends are reflected across the UK through volunteer surveys such as the Breeding Bird Survey and the Bird Atlas for Britain and Ireland published last year.  This is why the RSPB will be giving more attention to the suite of species associated with the uplands over the next few years.

    The uplands arguably are where we can make big conservation gains to live up to the Lawtonian* mantra of more, bigger, better and connected protected areas.  We have been surprised and delighted by the speed of recovery of upland species on back of restoration activity.  For example, through the Sustainable Catchment Management Project (SCaMP) with our partner United Utilities in the Peak District, we have done a huge amount to restore the peatlands especially through blocking drains and getting the right grazing in place.  The conservation response has been really impressive leading increases in moorland breeding waders of conservation concern including dunlin which experienced a 775% increase in a decade.  This landscape-scale approach to habitat restoration has benefitted a diverse range of bird species, from red grouse to buzzards. The SCaMP study provides strong evidence of the potential to transform damaged ecosystems.  Across the wider English uplands, over 200,000 ha of blanket bog is in need of restoration. To achieve this, it has been estimated it will require annual capital costs of around £27 million for six years. With investment, there is the potential to secure future benefits for wildlife, carbon, water and people. 

    There is similar opportunity on Dartmoor, which has 8,500 hectares of blanket bog alongside other important habitats such as valley mires, upland heath and its wonderful woodlands.  Nature needs scale and heterogeneity to flourish.  Dartmoor can provide this. What we must provide is the ambition and wherewithal to make it happen.  And this becomes a test of the promised 25 year plan for environment.  What measures will be included in the plan to benefit Dartmoor's people and wildlife?  Will there be new incentives to drive the changes we need to restore habitats and protect species?  Will there be new obligations and resources for organisations to work together to reconcile their competing priorities?  Will there be regular monitoring, reporting and scrutiny to assess progress?  

    Because of the growing importance of Dartmoor to the wildlife of Devon,  attention is increasingly focused on the major landowners such as the Duchy of Cornwall, the National Park authority, South West Water but also the Commoners that have the rights to graze more than a third of the Park.  We need these key players to work with charities like the RSPB and Devon Wildlife Trust to rally around an exciting vision for the future for Dartmoor, with wildlife at its heart, and then to work hard to make it happen.  Get it right, and then we will have done our bit for threatened wildlife of Devon including those summer migrants where improved breeding success can buy us time while we work with others to fix problems across their flyway.   

    One final thought, as today is international biodiversity day, whether on Dartmoor or elsewhere I hope you get out to see some wildlife.

    *I refer, of course, to Professor Sir John Lawton and his seminal report, Making Space for Nature 

    Andy Hay's image of a wood warbler in Dartmoor (rspb-images.com)