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
  • Migrants on my mind (2)

    I have often wondered what went through the minds of the people of Easter Island that chopped down their last tree.  Were they aware of what they were doing, but powerless to stop themselves?  Their actions "wiped out their forest, drove their plants and animals to extinction, and saw their complex society spiral into chaos and cannibalism" all because of a strange cultural ritual (see here).

    A similar thought occurred to me as I read that hunters in Malta were bemoaning the lack of turtle doves to shoot this season (see here).  They obviously managed to hit at least one as Chris Packham shared an image of an injured bird via twitter today (here).  That'll be another turtle dove that won't make it home.

    Chris is, through his video diary this week, doing a fantastic job at putting a spotlight on the excess of the Maltese spring hunters and it was good to hear him feature on the Today programme and Radio 2 phone-ins (I was travelling!).  Steve Micklewright and his Birdlife Malta colleagues will be delighted by the increased exposure that Chris' visit has generated in the run up to the proposed referendum on hunting.  It will, no doubt, be a boost to volunteers and staff.

    And, when turtle dove is literally in the firing line, it is another timely reminder of the importance of improving the breeding success of our fastest declining species here in the UK (here).  

    Turtle Dove by Andy Hay (

    Photo of a turtle dove: one that got away

    Whether suitable habitat is available for any of our farmland birds depends not just on the good will of farmers but also on the rules and incentives that govern management of our farmland - and that means each of the UK administrations making the best out of the bad Common Agriculture Policy deal that was agreed last year.

    In Northern Ireland, a failure to secure political agreement over funding for agri-environment means that there is now a £100m shortfall which will threaten the long term future of species such as the Irish hare and marsh fritillary butterfly.  The good news is that many farmers are now joining our calls on the NI Assembly to find the funds to continue to support wildlife-friendly farming.  You can read more about what we are doing here.

    In England, the agri-environment budget is settled but more work is being done on the design of the new scheme.  This is the scheme which will could decide the fate of species like turtle dove.  

    But there are other decisions being made by Defra now which could affect our farmed environment and determine how much value we get from public money - such as the new Pillar I ‘greening’ payment which applies to 30% of the total £11,500,000,000 in farming subsidies that will be paid out between now and 2020 in England.  While the rules have been heavily diluted, Defra still does have some licence to do good specifically through their use of Ecological Focus Areas (EFAs) - 5% of land doing good things for the environment.  

    But for this to do any good at all, Defra would have to ignore exemptions that would allow, for example, farmers to count land growing nitrogen-fixing crops such as peas and beans, which offer little for wildlife and also happen to be lucrative crops.  For example, at our farm in Cambridgeshire, our 34ha of combining peas last year would have more than given us our 5% EFA, while also netting us a profit of £684 per ha. So why, you might ask yourself, should we get some of the hard working public’s taxes for our peas, when we’re getting so much from the market?   We want to made to work harder for our money and for wildlife.

    Saving UK wildlife means we need to obsess about the detail of these agreements and fight to get civil servants and politicians to see sense on 'greening' and on funding/designing agri-environment schemes.  

    It also means that we must do all we can to support our Birdlife Partners throughout the flyway of our migrants.  Please do what you can by helping our campaign to influence CAP implementation across the UK, our Birds Beyond Borders project and, of course, keep watching Chris Packham (here) and support the Birdlife Malta campaign to end spring hunting (here).

    Easter Island: let this not be a parable for our time.

  • Migrants on my mind

    I've been thinking about migrants.

    It might have had something to do with bumping into quite a few sand martins, swallows, chiff chaffs and willow warblers while with the family in sunny Northumberland this weekend or...

    ...following Chris Packham's excellent video diary about the continued spring hunting on Malta (here) and supporting the Birdlife Malta fundraising push for a publicity campaign to encourage people to vote 'yes' in a referendum to end the appalling slaughter (here) or...

    ...anticipating the return of cuckoos* courtesy of the BTO's tracking (here) or...

    ...hearing about and signing Chris Rose's petition to urge the BBC to restart the 18 May outdoor broadcast of nightingales (here) or...

    ...receiving reports that 438 people have already to objected to the proposed development by Ministry of Defence at Lodge Hill nightingale SSSI while just 5 have written in support** or...

    ...wondering when the UK Government will end bird trapping on military bases in Cyprus (here) or

    ...reflecting on the prospects for this year's breeding season for our most threatened bird - the turtle dove (here) or

    ...simply because explaining the wonder of migration to my kids still makes their jaws drop.

    Given the parlous state of our migrants and the pressures they face in their breeding grounds, on passage and in their wintering grounds, our Bird without Borders project is probably the RSPB's most important.  You can read more about it and take part here.

    'Our' migrants need all the help they can get.  Please enjoy their return this spring and help them in any way you can.


    *The grapevine tells me that one was seen/heard at the Lodge this weekend.

    **Regular readers of this blog will be aware of the battle of Lodge Hill (see here).  We are calling on Medway Council to refuse outline planning permission, for a development proposal that would constitute one of the largest single losses of SSSI since the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 came in to force. If the Medway Council is minded either to grant permission itself or pass it to the Secretary of State for determination, we strongly support this application to being called-in and determined through the rigour of a public inquiry, given the scale of proposed damage to a nationally important nature conservation site and the implications of this proposal for national planning policy in relation to the protection of SSSIs, our finest wildlife sites.

  • 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.