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
  • Saving nature: why we still need heroes

    At the launch of Canvey Wick - branded as Britain's first reserve for bugs - I found myself reflecting on all the heroic deeds it takes to save a site for nature... 

    ...the expertise of local naturalists that identified the importance of the site

    ...the campaign led by Matt Shardlow, his Buglife team and the local community to protect the site from development

    ...the pioneering role of English Nature (now Natural England) staff in notifying the site as a SSSI

    ...the efforts of local councilors and local wildlife groups in harnessing community support before ownership was secured by the Land Trust and Buglife and RSPB took on shared responsibility for management.

    I was glad that Steve Backshall was there to cut the ribbon, show off some moths (if not his dancing skills) and engage a packed marquee about the wonders of the site - home to over 1500 invertebrates.

    So many special places for wildlife across the country have similar histories - wonderful places loved by local people, threatened by development, but saved due to heroic deeds. Places like Sydenham Hill Wood (over which my old flat in London looked), Rainham Marshes, and Oxleas Wood have, at various stages in their history, been contested land.  But, through determination, passion and smart campaigns these sites were saved.

    And as I wandered to the edge of Canvey Island with our site manager,  I couldn't help but think about the other side of the Thames and Lodge Hill in north Kent.  Another special site for wildlife and now under severe threat of development.  The good news is that over 7,000 people have now written to the Secretary of State Eric Pickles to urge him to 'call-in' the decision by Medway Council to approve outline planning for 5,000 houses on this SSSI.  The local campaign is growing and, if you have not done so already, please do join in here.

    Heroism comes in all shapes and sizes.  Modern nature conservation requires dedicated campaigners like the Friends of North Kent Marshes who have seen off two airport proposals.  We need figureheads like Steve Backshall to bring to life the wonders of the natural world and we need more people to do their bit - whether writing to politicians or joining the Climate March on Sunday.  The efforts add up.

    And finally, we need modern-day equivalents of Samuel Pepys - not diarists (or bloggers - there are enough of them) - but excellent administrators.  Pepys, famed for his diary, is less well known for helping to grow the British navy through his extraordinary administrative skills.  In this increasingly complex world where change seems a constant, we should be celebrating the heroic modern-day administrators who harness the skills of dedicated campaigners and grow the impact of the nature conservation community. 

  • Action on climate change: standing up for the things we love

    Nature conservationists, food and furniture retailers, Unions, tea makers, ramblers, food manufacturers, development groups...

    We all need a safe, stable climate to succeed in whatever we do, which is why such a diverse, high-profile grouping of organisations including ourselves have today  written to the Prime Minister calling on him to drive forward bold action on climate change at a critical summit next week. Given that he's quite busy at the moment, we even went to the length of placing the letter as an advert in the Times and Telegraph – just to make sure he sees it!

    The Prime Minister has rightly decided to attend next week's UN Climate Change Summit in New York.  He should take comfort from the fact that, despite media talk of deniers and sceptics, everywhere you look, the breadth of people and organisations backing serious and rapid action on climate change is broadening.

    This can be seen in another event today: the launch of a major report by The Global Commission on the Economy and Climate (here) called ‘better growth, better climate’. The report was commissioned by a Commission of seven Governments, including that of the UK, and is the work of an unprecedented range of reputable and influential economists, politicians, and institutions. 

    The Commission argue that the world has a choice. Not between taking action on climate change or not, but between alternative pathways: one that will exacerbate risks to the climate and our environment and another that reduces it.  Neither pathway is free.

    Continuing as we are – developing at the expense of an ever more unstable climate and degraded environment – will cost  $90 trillion of infrastructure spending over 15 years anyway. A sustainable pathway, which keeps climate change to within safe levels and reduces air pollution and protects the natural environment costs $94 trillion. A 4.5% increase in infrastructure costs to save the world sounds like a great deal to me.

    This is what the Commission refers to as “better growth”; rather than the myopic pursuit of maximum growth.  They argue that countries should be pursuing growth that is inclusive; builds resilience; strengthens local communities; improves the quality of life in a variety of ways, from local air quality to commuting times; and sustains the natural environment. This is a message that we and many others have been giving to Treasury for many years, but it has largely fallen on deaf ears. I hope this report will help change that.  There are many that I hope will hear the message, including the new European President Juncker.

    The Commission also put forward a ‘ten point global action plan’. You can read them all for yourselves, but I will draw out three that are as urgent as they are common sense.

    1) A strong, lasting and equitable climate agreement

    This was of course meant to be delivered in Copenhagen in 2009, and it’s easy to allow the vast political failure that occurred at this summit to jaundice your view of the chances of this every happening. Don’t let it though, because things have changed radically. Politically, China and the US are now taking decisive action, for example, and economically we have seen renewable energy grow and grow as prices for solar and wind in particular have plummeted. What’s more, support for climate action is growing across businesses and society – as our today’s letter to the PM shows.

    2) Halt the deforestation of natural forests by 2030

    Home to three quarters of all terrestrial plants and animals, yet we are still losing 13 million hectares each year, driving climate change as well as biodiversity loss. We urgently need funding from countries like the UK to start flowing into forest projects across the world if we are to halt deforestation.

    3) Accelerate the shift away from polluting coal power generation

    Coal is the dirtiest of the fossil fuels and there are no excuses for allowing new coal power stations when so many alternatives exist. The Commission’s recommendation that high-income countries commit to an end to new unabated coal generation and accelerate retirement of existing capacity is a no-brainer.

    I hope that the report is a timely reminder of the benefits of taking action on climate change and will, in the run up to next week's UN Summit in New York, trigger a political response commensurate with the scale of the climate change challenge.

  • Ten good things

    It's a Monday, September is flying by and constitutional uncertainty reigns.  So here are ten good things to bring you cheer...

    1. At last week's RSPB reserves' conference colleagues provided great stories about how the RSPB's 150,000 hectares of land is looking after more than 15,000 species and provide "an oasis of wonderfulness".  Make a date to visit on of our 210 sites.

    2. There are still young people that can make sense of the diversity that exists within our insect fauna.  Three of our trainee ecologists even managed to help me get to grips with beetle, bee and river-fly ID.  If I can do it, so can you.

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    3. The beaver has made a remarkable come-back across Europe and there is growing momentum behind a successful reintroduction programme here in the UK. Roisin Campbell-Palmer of the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland inspired the RSPB audience by providing a history of the fall and rise of the beaver and an update on the Scottish Beaver Trial.

    4. The National Trust has big plans to do more for nature on its vast Estate.  Harry Bowell, Director for the Midlands region and formerly of this Parish, also spoke at the conference and highlighted some of this ambition for landscape-scale conservation and bravely challenged us to do more.  We will pick up his challenge and be curious about how we can improve.

    5. Our ambitions to manage land for wildlife and inspire people to do more have not diminished and new technology (such as these two extraordinary drones - one made inhouse - fitted with thermal imagery cameras) may help us improve our monitoring.  Speaking of which, I am expecting soon to be able to report some good news about this year's breeding season - watch this space.  

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    On a different note, there are again reasons to be optimistic that a fair and binding global climate change deal is within our grasp...

    6. The UK Government has outlined its own vision (here) for a successful global climate deal and, one assumes, that this will form the centrepiece of the Prime Minister's speech when he joins other world leaders in New York next week at the UN Summit on Climate Change.

    7. Public enthusiasm for campaigning on climate change has not diminished.   Hundreds of thousands of people will take to the streets next week at rallies in London (here) and all round the world - united in their demand for climate action.

    And, even if you were as depressed as I was by the new agenda set by European Commissioner President Juncker last week (see here)...

    8. Be cheered by the fact that Environment Commissioner (designate), Karmenu Vella (the subject of my blog yesterday), will be grilled this week by his daunghter-in-law and MEP Miriam Dali.  Ms Dali is on the record as saying that Malta should follow the Birds Directive in the strictest manner possible ensuring hunting is sustainable and does not endanger wild birds. Since writing this blog, it has become clear that a false twitter account for Commissioner Vella had been created.  Ms Dali will not be part of the scrutiny process, however, as far I am aware, her pro-directives statements still stand!

    If you are equally depressed by the thought you may not see a swallow, house martin or swift again until next spring, remember...

    9.  The ducks and geese are coming and...

    10.  The fungi are already out - go forage!  You'll be amazed by what you'll find.

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    Just a sample of what I saw at the weekend: a bolete, amethyst deceiver and parasol