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 the RSPB thinks about the proposed Defra Hen Harrier Action Plan

    It's good to see (here) the shooting community supporting the need for a recovery plan for the hen harrier in England - this is a positive step forward. 

    As I have written previously (for example, see here), we want a world richer in nature and we want to see a recovery plan that does what it says on the tin, i.e. it secures recovery for the hen harrier in England.  This is something to which the UK Government is committed to through its Biodiversity 2020 Strategy and for which it has legal obligations under the EU Birds Directive.

    A target-led approach to species recovery which focuses on tackling the key threats has long been a theme of nature conservation and, indeed, was the basis of the UK Biodiversity Action Plan established in 1994 by the then Environment Secretary, John Gummer, now Lord Deben.

    In our discussions with Defra, we have sought to ensure that the developing plan focuses attention on the right issues, especially tackling the root causes of decline. In the case of the hen harrier, the key threat constraining recovery is illegal persecution.

    There has been some debate about the relative merits of a so-called brood management scheme (BMS) whereby hen harrier chicks would be removed from a moor when a threshold of birds was reached to remove perceived predation pressure on grouse. 

    This is an idea that emerged a few years ago and which we have given considerable thought – indeed we even wrote an article in the Journal of Applied Ecology on the subject in 2009 (see here). 

    We have concluded that this may merit experimental investigation in England 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.

    It is regarding the conservation target that we and the shooting community differ.  They would like to pilot the BMS now. We think this is not only premature but potentially not compliant with existing legislation.  It would also send a terrible signal to nature conservation that it is appropriate to 'manage' a highly threatened population of an iconic species.

    To survive in the 21st century, driven grouse shooting must be able to demonstrate that it can operate in harmony with healthy populations of birds of prey like the hen harrier and that it can address the other negative environmental impacts associated with grouse moor management (here).  This is why we think it is right and timely to license driven grouse shooting. 

    The conflict between grouse shooting and environment is understandably becoming an increasingly emotive debate and there have, over the past three years, been four separate e-petitions on the Number 10 website about birds of prey and grouse shooting.  Most people want the wildlife in our uplands to flourish and I note the growing support for Hen Harrier day being organised on 10 August.  While I shall be on holiday for the day itself, I shall be there in spirit hoping that it helps put a spotlight on illegal killing. I know many RSPB supporters, staff and volunteers will be attending and adding their support to the call for the end of illegal persecution of the hen harrier.

    In the meantime, we look forward to continuing our work with Defra, the shooting community and others to secure an effective hen harrier recovery plan so that everyone can get behind it soon. It's only by working together that we'll save the hen harrier and we're determined to reach an agreement.

     

  • A reaction to the UK Government's decision to stick to its carbon targets for the 2020s

    Three weeks after I shared the latest understanding about the impacts of climate change on birds (here), I was delighted to hear today's news that the Government will be sticking to its carbon targets for the 2020s. This is an important decision from the Coalition and one that I warmly welcome.

    Many of you will remember the Climate Change Act, passed with cross-party consensus in 2008, putting the UK at the forefront of global efforts to combat climate change. The Act established a system of five-yearly budgets that are meant to ensure we are on the trajectory of delivering a reduction in emissions of at least 80% by 2050. The fourth carbon budget, which covers the period 2022-27, was set by the Coalition in 2011 and it effectively committed the UK to reducing its emissions by half by the mid-2020s. This was in line with the science and we welcomed it at the time, but there was one problem - the Treasury insisted on a review in 2014, creating a shadow of uncertainty that has held back the low carbon transition ever since.

    Today’s announcement lifts that shadow.  It establishes a clear and ambitious trajectory and, critically, it puts the UK back in a leadership position just as the negotiations in the EU and at the UN over a global deal on climate change are heating up.

    Alone, an ambitious fourth carbon budget is an important achievement for the Coalition, but if David Cameron uses this as a platform for international leadership on climate action over the remainder of his term then it could be much more.  Securing an ambitious deal to cut emissions in the EU and helping put the world on track to a global deal on climate change by the end of 2015 would be a legacy that is felt by future generations, here and across the world.

    His first opportunity to do this will be at the UN Climate Leaders Summit in New York this September. I hope Mr Cameron will confirm his attendance as soon as possible, particularly as it would encourage other world leaders that they should do the same.

    Today also sends a powerful signal to those who have opposed action on climate change, and is a reminder of the importance that the cross-party consensus that delivered the Climate Change Act is maintained. Our climate targets are about doing our bit for the future of our planet and the people and wildlife we share it with - and this is just too important to for politicians to fall out over.

    This brings me to our new Climate Coalition campaign that the RSPB launched this week.  "For the love of" is all about  reminding ourselves and politicians why all of this is so important in the first place.  

    Take a look and share what you love that is affected by climate change.  

    I’ll be reviewing some of the best wildlife uploads on this blog soon – so please do join in!

    In the meantime, here's my contribution (first shared in April here)

    For the love of...

    ...wildlife (especially fabulous birds like the kittiwake and golden plover)

    ...places (especially the Somerset Levels and my family's hut on the eroding cliff in Northumberland) and

    ...people (especially my family but also the Arsenal football team even when they fail to meet expectations - that's Arsenal, by the way, not the family)

    Let's tackle climate change.

  • Reflections on the Game Fair

    It was roasting hot at the CLA Game Fair in Blenheim on Friday.   My failure to invest in a light linen suit and rely instead on my black chords meant that I suffered.   

    I participated in the afternoon debate questioning whether the rural economy needs shooting or angling.  The stimulus for the session was a recent update of a report first published in 2006, "The Value of Shooting" (here), by the Public and Corporate Economic Consultants (PACEC) on behalf of a range of shooting organisations.  I was joined on the panel by Rhodri Thomas from Strutt and Parker, Richard Ali, CEO of BASC, Howard Davies, CEO of the Association of AONBs and the event was chaired by Alistair Balmain, editor of Shooting Times.

    I gave two answers to the question: a simple one which not many in the audience particularly liked and a slightly more sophisticated response which probably divided the audience.

    My simple answer was at that if you stuck to maths, the rural economy could survive and flourish with other land uses. 

    For example, if your prime objective was to maximise economic output you'd probably invest in rural broadband: it is estimated that for every £1 of public investment, broadband generates £20 in net economic impact.  

    Shooting is carried out over 80% of rural Britain much of which is supported by £3billion CAP subsidy.  The £2 billion shooting purports to generate works out at about £130 per hectare.  A reductionist argument would say that RSPB reserves are more economically beneficial providing £500 per hectare.  So, you could go further say and improve the rural economy by turning the countryside into one big RSPB nature reserve - utopia for some, a nightmare for others.

    My slightly more sophisticated response suggested that it was right for the PACEC report to look at the environmental and social contribution of shooting as well. 

    While not the subject of the PACEC report, angling is also hugely popular with nearly 3 million people taking part (an estimated 50,000 RSPB fish).  More often that not, the interests of angling and fishing converge which is why we spend so much time working in partnership with organisations like the Angling Trust and the Salmon and Trout Association.

    Shooting is also clearly popular: 600,000 people in the UK shoot.  And clearly land over which shooting is carried out does some good things for wildlife...

    ...management of woodland for some pheasant shoots can improve species diversity

    ...some farmers, who run shoots, have achieved great things for wildlife supported by agri-environment schemes

    ...many of our Nature of Farming Award finalists manage farms with shoots on them 

    ...and of course some birds flourish in the uplands where grouse moor management is prevalent

    Yet, a proper assessment of value of any sector must look at the costs as well as the benefits.  And when it come to the environmental costs of shooting, I am afraid I become a little bit like former US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld:

    There are known “knowns”.  For example, driven grouse shooting is associated with negative environmental impacts: just ten percent of the 162,000 hectares of blanket bog designated as SSSI are in favourable condition, inappropriate management leads to a deterioration in water quality (with associated treatment costs) water contamination and increase in greenhouse gas emissions and illegal killing of birds of prey, including golden eagle, hen harrier, red kite, peregrine falcons and goshawks, continues in some areas.

    There are also some known “unknowns”.  For example, we still do not know what the environmental impact of releasing c50 million game birds a year into the countryside.  This amounts to something like 55,000 tonnes of gamebirds versus an estimated total biomass of wild birds in the UK of 19,500 tonnes.  The quantity of gamebirds released appears to have increased by nearly 25% in the past decade. And we seem to know precious little about the potential impacts of the increasing use of veterinary medicines to treat grouse on the wider environment.

    Given the trend to more intensive land management, it is unsurprising that we think that more needs to be done to improve the balance sheet of shooting.

    While the debate itself was inconclusive and subsequent conversations were good natured, the difference of opinion centres on what to do when environmental damage occurs.  Self-regulation is no longer viable when public goods are damaged by private activity.  Which is why, in the uplands, we have called for the introduction of a licensing system to govern grouse shooting.  In the lowlands, we need to know more about the consequences of releasing large quantities of gamebirds.  With knowledge you can take action. 

    It is in the interests of shooting to demand high standards across all parts of the shooting community and to improve our understanding of its environmental impact.  I hope that when the Game Fair marquees, linen suits and hats are packed away for another year, this is where the shooting community focuses its attention.