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
  • Documenting crimes against wild birds

    Today we publish our annual Birdcrime report- the only centralised source of incident data for wild bird crime in the UK.  I am incredibly proud of this document as it reflects the hard work and dedication of volunteers, the RSPB’s Investigations team, the police, the statutory nature conservation agencies and others in tackling wildlife crime.  While impressive, the report remains a sobering read.

    Here are this year's headlines.. 2014, the RSPB received 179 reports of shooting and destruction of birds of prey, including the confirmed shooting of 23 buzzards, nine peregrines, three red kites and a hen harrier.

    ...there have also been 72 reported incidents of wildlife poisoning and pesticide-related offences. Confirmed victims of poisoning include 23 red kites, 9 buzzards and four peregrine falcons.

    ...these figures are believed to represent only a fraction of the illegal persecution in the UK, with many incidents thought to be going undetected and unreported.

    The messages in our latest report are clear...

    ...bird of prey persecutions still continues in many parts of the UK, and is one reason that is stopping some of our native birds of prey from recovering to their natural levels.  

    ...despite decades of legal protection, raptor persecution has been persistent over a wide geographical area with negative conservation impacts for several species. This is evidenced by a number of scientific studies and Government reports. As a result, the Government has made raptor persecution a national wildlife crime priority. protect birds of prey we must defend the laws that protect them, in particular the EU Nature Directives. We need a consistent approach and effort across the UK to protect our most threatened birds of prey, such as the hen harrier and golden eagle, from illegal persecution.

    To me, each incident illustrated in the report shines a spotlight onto the almost hidden world of wildlife crime. These crimes against our most vulnerable species often occur in the remotest areas of our countryside, away from the public eye. On occasions it seems like a small miracle that any cases get to court at all, depending, as they do, on witnesses not only recognising that a crime has occurred, but knowing how to report it.

    Many of these crimes are hard to police and serve as a reminder that tackling wildlife offences requires both effective penalties and suitably resourced enforcing authorities.

    I am often asked about the RSPB's position on proposals to strengthen protection for wild birds.  So for the avoidance of doubt, here is a summary of what we believe is needed...

    ...we support the role of the National Wildlife Crime Unit to aid police dealing with wildlife crime and have urged a rethink of proposed budget cuts which could impact on species protection.

    ...we want full implementation of the laws which protect those species, including more effective penalties, to enable enforcement and provide a genuine deterrent to those who stand to gain from wildlife crime. For example we think the introduction of a robust system of licensing to govern driven grouse shooting and vicarious liability for wildlife crimes throughout the UK could lead to many improvements. We are disappointed that the Law Commission's review of wildlife law (here) failed to pick up these recommendations 

    ...we will continue to share knowledge with partner organisations to help in the fight against wildlife crime in the UK and throughout the EU, via our involvement in the European Network against Environmental Crime (ENEC).

    Our campaign in defence of the EU Nature Directives has demonstrated (once again) the huge public support for protection of the environment in the UK and throughout Europe. And, the over the past two years we've seen growing public unrest about the ongoing illegal killing of wild birds.  This has expressed itself through the Hen Harrier Days which started in 2014 and protests in the streets which followed the mass poisoning of red kites and buzzards in Scotland.  These represent just a small fraction of the hundreds of thousands who have called for an end to bird of prey persecution.

    And, it is clear that many members of the shooting community want an end to illegal persecution and make a significant contribution to conservation.  While we will continue to work with the police to crack down on illegality, we will also continue to work with anyone that wants to see our birds of prey fly free from harm. 

    It is only by working together that we can finally consign bird of prey persecution to the history books.

  • Spending Review: first relief and then a reality check

    Reflecting on today’s announcement that DEFRA would be 15% in real terms by 2020 one of the RSPB's economists remarked “when you’re expecting the apocalypse a broken leg feels like a Christmas present”.

    He does tend to trade in hyperbole, but Defra’s settlement is better than the 30% we had been led to expect (see here).

    It seems the chancellor has been able to make use of newly predicted increases in tax revenue and as a result the consequences for the State’s ability to address its environmental commitments will not, it appears, be as bad as we feared.

    Yet, although there is relief, the reality is that DEFRA has overall faired worse than most because it received the largest resource cuts in the last round. It will have been cut by around 50% in real terms since 2010 by 2020 and (DECC by 37%). DEFRA will be receiving the fourth biggest cuts of any department.

    The total money cut from DEFRA today will be a 0.03% cut in his overall budget. £100 million is a drop in the ocean of public finance but critical funding for the natural world.

    As ever the detail is found in the detail of spending reviews.  The ritual is that once the Chancellor sits down after his statement to the Commons, the detail emerges on the Treasury’s website and our economists then start trying to reveal the true picture.  Here is what they have found so far...

    ...the figures presented in the CSR ignore “time limited expenditure”. Defra’s day to day spending for this year reported in its annual report was £1.77 billion but the budget reported in the CSR is £1.5 billion. That’s another £270 million (well over the total Natural England budget) that is not mentioned and could be at risk. If there is no more space for, “time limited” spending the total cuts to DEFRA’s budget would be 27% and in the area we had been expecting.

    ...the government states than it intends to reduce DEFRA’s administrative costs by 26%. If that is possible, that would go a long way towards efficiently making these cuts without harming front line services. It would come to over the extra £100 million they need to save each year (according to the CSR figures) but they don’t mention where they would find the initial investment to make these savings if they are achievable. The admin savings also include reductions in, “unnecessary bureaucracy” which could mean not enforcing environmental protections in a way we might consider appropriate.

    This is complicated stuff and my guess is that not all civil servants will have managed to get their heads around what all this will mean.  Is it a 15% cut which will be entirely made up of efficiency savings or a 27% cut that may or may not be ameliorated by significant efficiencies?

    What we do know is that this would mean a 50% cut in spending between 2010 and 2020. We also think DEFRA could lose more than 2,000 staff bringing total losses up to 10,000 since 2010 (see graphic above).

    My closing thought is this – the challenge of restoring nature in a generation is enormous and erosion of the capacity of the State is unlikely to be helpful unless innovative sources of finance are found quickly.  Civil society wants to respond, but may struggle to grow at a rate to compensate for the reduction in the size of the State while businesses need to step up more.  We need an open and honest conversation about how to close the growing gap between stated ambition and collective capacity to meet it.

    If we can’t fill the resource gap then ultimately our prosperity will suffer.  As the Government’s Natural Capital Committee has clearly shown - damaging our environment means damaging our shared home, eroding the soils, minerals, clean water, breathable air and wildlife that support our health and our well-being.

  • A big day in the long struggle to protect the laws that protect nature

    Following Friday's conference in Brussels, I am delighted to welcome my colleague, Kate Jennings, who has spearheaded the UK contribution to the campaign to defend the EU Nature Directives.  Below, she offers her reflections on a memorable day in the heart of the European Union.


    Over 2 years after the European Commission announced its intention to subject the European Birds and Habitats Directives (AKA the ‘Nature Directives’) to a ‘Fitness Check’ review as part of their Regulatory Fitness and Performance Programme (REFIT)…

    …19 months after the European Commission published its plans for that review..

    …12 months after Jean-Claude Juncker, the President of the European Commission pre-empted the findings of that review by instructing Environment Commissioner Karmenu Vella to seek to merge and modernise those laws…

    …11 months after a consortium of consultants working for the Commission started to compile evidence to inform the review…

    …6 months after an unprecedented 100 UK NGOs joined forces with at least 100 more from across the EU to submit evidence and to campaign against this threat to the laws that protect nature…

    …4 months after a record-breaking 550,000 individuals and organisations responded to a European Commission consultation on the future of these laws (over 520,000 of whom called for the laws to be protected, including over 100,000 from the UK).

    … and 1 month after nine EU member states (Germany, Croatia, France, Italy, Luxembourg, Poland, Romania, Slovenia and Spain) wrote to Commissioner Vella to oppose any amendment or merger of the Directives because of the negative impact this would have on action for nature and on certainty for business…

     …. On Friday in a cold and wet Brussels, over 400 stakeholders representing Governments, businesses and NGOs from across the EU gathered to discuss the draft findings of the Fitness Check of the Nature Directives. I was there, along with Mike Clarke (who spoke in his role as a member of BirdLife’s Global Council) and other RSPB colleagues who have been working (almost literally) round the clock on this issue for the last few months, and with other members of the UK NGO ‘Joint Links’ coalition, including BugLife, Friends of the Earth and WWF-UK.

    Attendees were greeted by an energetic crowd of oversized wildlife – including banner-waving bumblebees, and a frog and a flamingo handing out ‘Keep calm and implement the laws’ badges! They, along with their other furry friends - were there to present Environment Commissioner Karmenu Vella with a little reminder of the scale of public support for the Nature Directives – as demonstrated by those over 520,000 individuals and organisations who called for the laws to be protected during the public consultation.

    The purpose of the day was to present the draft findings of the review – which Martin and Mike have previously described in this blog here and here. In short it found that the Nature Directives are fit for purpose, and any problems with them are a consequence of poor implementation and enforcement.  They make a ‘major contribution to the EU’s biodiversity target’, but complementary action – especially in key policy areas such as agriculture – is essential to halt the loss of biodiversity.  

    The interesting thing was to see how stakeholders in general – and Member State Governments in particular – would respond.

    Not everything that we heard was encouraging (or compatible with the evidence presented!) – but the overwhelming majority of those who spoke reinforced the key messages that the Directives are fit for purpose, and that what nature needs is a focus on their full and proper implementation, married with action to target other policies (especially those on agriculture) which all too often run counter to our best efforts to defend nature.

    The German Government – a staunch defender of the Nature Directives – took to the conference stage alongside representatives of the European Parliament’s Environment Council, the Committee of the Regions, IUCN, the European Landowners Association and FACE (the European Hunter’s Federation) and the Estonian and Slovakian Governments (amongst others), all reiterating that the Directives are fit for purpose, but that greater emphasis to improve implementation is required. On stage, Mandy King of the UK’s Department for Energy and Climate Change spoke of their evidence to the review, which found that while major developers do incur costs to comply with these laws, those costs are proportionate to the risks such developments pose to the environment, and that where issues arise, these are to do with how the laws are implemented, rather than the laws themselves. From the floor, Andy Limbrick of Energy UK spoke of the importance of protecting these laws to provide a stable regulatory framework for the energy industry, and Stanley Johnson, former Conservative MEP and founding father of the Habitats Directive, also took to the floor to defend the law he wrote over 20 years ago.

    However, one of the most significant speeches of the day came from Dr Hans Hoogeveen – Director General for Agriculture and Nature Management at the Netherlands Ministry of Economic Affairs and Vice-Minister for Agriculture. The Dutch Government has long been at the heart of attempts to weaken the Nature Directives – and early in the day Dutch Government representatives seemed to be holding this line – calling repeatedly for greater ‘flexibility’ in the laws. However, in the afternoon came an apparent U-turn, when Dr Hoogeveen stated that ‘'the Nature Directives should not be changed - that is position of the Netherlands Government”.

    And the UK Government? Well – while Defra Minister Rory Stewart did not attend, it was good to see Defra officials. along with representatives of the Scottish and Welsh governments in attendance on the day. To date, there is no official UK Government position on the review of the Nature Directives, attributed to a desire not to pre-empt the finding of the evidence based review, and there’s still time for you to call on the UK Government to Defend Nature;

    We can only hope that on the basis of that evidence – and indeed on the evidence of the Government’s own 2012 review which concluded that ‘in the large majority of cases the implementation of the Directives is working well, allowing both development of key infrastructure and ensuring that a high level of environmental protection is maintained’ – the UK Government will soon be standing shoulder to shoulder with the ever-growing number of Member States who are taking a stand to protect the laws that protect nature..