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
  • Tackling another of the four horsemen of the ecological apocalypse: non-native invasive species

    Europe’s 766 MEPs faced a vital environmental decision this week when they confronted one of the four horsemen of the ecological apocalypse (here). As I have written previously (here), across the world, invasive non-native species are wreaking havoc with native species, driving extinction and severely damaging economic interests. In Europe, we had a chance to take action to avoid some of this harm. After 10 years of spadework, MEPs have voted in favour for an EU Regulation on Invasive Alien Species. The RSPB, in common with many other conservation organisations, believed it was vital that the MEPs voted in favour. My colleagues with a special understanding of the issues posed by non-native species have been working to get the best agreement.

    The negotiated text is the result of a three-way compromise between the European Parliament, the EU member states and the Commission. Sadly, it is not all positive, but our lobbying has yielded significant improvements to previous proposals, including: the removal of a 50-species cap on the list of species of Union concern; provisions for species which are native to some parts of the EU, but invasive elsewhere; and the creation of a scientific advisory body.

    Pressures from certain industries, such as mink farming, for lifting the regulation for economic interests were resolved, and controlled licensing for certain activities using invasive species will be overseen by the Commission. However, some glaring gaps remain, such as the removal - under pressure from shipping interests - of any obligation to manage the dumping of many invasive non-native species (such as Carpet sea-squirt or American comb jelly) in the marine environment have used this pathway to become established.

    The new legislation is in line with decisions of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) on invasive species, and the Aichi Biodiversity Targets: our global commitment to halt biodiversity loss by 2020. Effective implementation will be key to its success, and this will be the focus of RSPB work on invasive species in the coming months. Our main tasks will be influencing the list of species to which the Regulation will apply, and making sure that the scientific body has the role and capacity to provide sound scientific input to the rapidly changing field of biological invasions.

    The issue of ballast water has been readily identified by the Environmental Audit Committee as an area where Government could do better. In the results of its inquiry on invasive species, published also this week, the Environmental Audit Committee welcomes the new EU legislation on invasive species, and recommends the UK ratify the 2004 International Convention for the Control and Management of Ships' Ballast Water and Sediments as a measure to reduce the chances of inadvertently bringing in marine invaders, including the eggs and larvae of larger organisms. We can only applaud this clear message from the committee, which might have a remarkable effect on a global scale – the Ballast Water Convention has been ratified by a sufficient number of countries (38), but for it to enter into force it is necessary that they cover 35 per cent of the world’s merchant fleet, it’s currently just over 30 per cent. Possibly, the addition of the nation’s important merchant fleet (16th largest in the world) could make that difference, as well as a significant contribution to the conservation of global biodiversity.

    Enjoy your break over Easter (I am heading north) - we can pick up the fight to deal with the other horsemen of the ecological apocalypse next week.

  • A day at the JCB world Headquarters for the AGM of the National Gamekeepers' Organisation

    I enjoyed speaking today at the National Gamekeepers' Organisation AGM at the very impressive JCB world headquarters.  

    As expected, we did not agree on everything (for example badgers and hen harriers), but the NGO members present were polite enough to give me a round of applause even if I didn't get the standing ovation afforded to David Bellamy and Robin Page!

    The debate was actually healthy and friendly. It is only through talking that we get to understand each other a bit better and that is a prerequisite to any collaboration. A battle of dogma or a war of words conducted through the media helps no-one.

    As well as discussing our general approach to nature conservation, I covered the science of predation and described how our policy around vertebrate control guided practice on our reserves (as covered in my previous post).

    I ended with a challenge regarding ongoing illegal killing of birds of prey. I showed a map of the number of incidents of illegal killing of birds of prey over the past ten years (c2,500) and a chart that illustrated that 70% of the 160 people convicted of offences related to bird of prey persecution between 1990 to 2012 have said that their profession or interest related to game.

    I argued that every time someone with game interests is convicted of a wildlife crime, whether a member of the NGO or not, it tarnishes the reputation of the whole profession.

    It is in the gamekeepers' interest to have zero tolerance of illegal activity which is why it is right that the NGO has, through its disciplinary procedures, a clear policy on those that are convicted of wildlife crime.

    Every incident of illegal killing and every conviction of someone with game interests, makes collaboration harder.  

    That said, we are reaching out, for example through our Skydancer programme (here), to gamekeeper colleges and offering demonstration days at our reserves, like Geltsdale, to talk about ways of reducing conflict between birds of prey and gamebirds through habitat management and techniques such as diversionary feeding.  

    I ended by saying that I looked forward to the day when I didn't have to stand up at a NGO AGM and show a map of illegal killing, that I don’t hear about the poisoning of nineteen birds of prey in Ross-shire as I did fortnight ago and I no longer get calls from one of our investigators to say that police have just charged someone with game interests for illegal killing.

    Instead I would be talking about how we are working together to save species like lapwing, curlew, black grouse and yes, hen harrier.

    That would be a good day.  

  • The conservationist's dilemma: an update on the science, policy and practice of the impact of predators on wild birds

    Today, I am speaking that the National Gamekeeper's Organisation AGM.

    I was pleased to be invited and it promises to be an interesting meeting.  I expect a bit of reciprocal challenge and, hopefully, a shared desire for collaboration to help wildlife.

    As part of my talk, I shall explain the RSPB's understanding of the impact that predators have on wild birds and our response.  I have previously written about how the RSPB uses the wildlife licensing system to support nature conservation (see here).  What follows is a bit of an update.

    First a bit of context...

    The NGO's AGM coincides with the breeding season and the RSPB is, of course, passionate about increasing the population of threatened species particularly on our 215 reserves across 151,197ha of land.  Dedicated work by a large team of staff and volunteers goes into creating just the right habitat to support priority birds (alongside the other 15,000 species that we are lucky enough to be responsible for on our estate).   As well as getting the habitat structure and the food supply right, we also have to ensure the birds are productive, raising a good number of chicks.

    The great conservationist's dilemma comes about when one species (usually a predator) threatens the population of another.  The big question that we have to address, particularly on our own land, is what do we then do about it?

    We have invested considerable research into the role of predators. This has included a review of the evidence of the impacts of predation on wild birds which concluded that...

    ...generalist ground predators,such as foxes, can sometimes reduce the population levels of their prey, and that this is a growing worry if we are to conserve populations of threatened ground-nesting birds, for example lapwings

    ...the evidence to implicate predators such as sparrowhawks in the declines of songbirds is very weak. 

    A more recent (as yet unpublished) review confirms these findings. 

    We have also done considerable work on the impacts of predation on breeding productivity of lapwings on lowland wet grasslands.  The research on lapwings has shown that, at the majority of sites studied, foxes are by far the most important predator of their nests. We have subsequently developed and installed predator-exclusion fences at suitable sites to help protect nesting waders against foxes (and also badgers at some sites). We now have predator-exclusion fences at 14 lowland wet grassland reserves.

    Waders at Ham Wall, RSPB nature reserve (David Kjaer, 

    Estimates suggest that lapwings need to fledge between about 0.6 and 0.8 young per pair to maintain a stable population. In 2013, at our reserves with predator-exclusion fences (such as Rainham Marshes), mean lapwing productivity was 1.05 chicks per pair.   Working with neighbouring land managers to restore habitats at a landscape-scale, we hope that the productive waders from our reserves will help to repopulate the surrounding countryside.

    However, occasionally foxes get inside our fences and at some sites ground-nesting birds are too widespread for fences to be effective.  In these circumstances we have to use lethal control.  These decisions are never taken lightly and are guided by our Council approved policy.

    As I have written previously, vertebrate control on RSPB reserves is only considered where the following four criteria are met:

    • That the seriousness of the problem has been established;
    • That non-lethal measures have been assessed and found not to be practicable;
    • That killing is an effective way of addressing the problem;
    • That killing will not have an adverse impact on the conservation status of the target or other non-target species.

    Below, I summarise numbers of vertebrates killed on RSPB reserves by us and our contractors during 2012/13. I have not included vertebrate control commissioned by third parties as part of existing rights.

    As these tables show, there are four main situations where the above criteria are met. These are to:

    • Increase breeding productivity of ground-nesting birds (mainly waders), principally by controlling foxes;
    • Reduce numbers of deer where they are having a detrimental impact on the vegetation, especially by overgrazing the ground flora in woodlands and preventing tree regeneration.  Often deer management is undertaken to prevent damage or aid recovery of nationally important wildlife sites;
    • Protect nesting seabirds;
    • Benefit water voles by killing non-native mink.

    We continue to wrestle with the conservationists dilemma, but are guided by the needs of threatened species, science and our policy.

    I look forward to hearing, amongst other things, the response from the gamekeepers to our approach.  Tomorrow, I shall let you know how it went.