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
  • Choices for nature: the RSPB’s vision for energy

    Tonight, I am helping to launch The RSPB’s 2050 Energy Vision - a new report showing how the UK could transform its energy system and meet its 2050 climate targets in harmony with nature whilst remaining affordable and secure. 

    I’m excited by this research as it helps us work out if we can have our cake and eat it ie a low carbon future that avoids harming the natural environment. 

    We were motivated to do this research for three reasons.

    First, climate change poses the greatest long term threat to wildlife: one in six species worldwide could go extinct by the end of the century if we carry on business as usual. This is why the RSPB has campaigned with others both domestically and internationally for high targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and wean our economies off fossil fuels.

    Second, we support the transition to a renewable energy future yet our experience is that poorly planned renewable projects can cause needless harm to wildlife.  In debates about wind farms, barrages and bioenergy, we have over the past twenty years had to fight hard to ensure wildlife impacts are taken into account in both design and deployment of schemes.

    As a consequence, we have huge experience of how to do things well and what to avoid.  For example, between 2010-2015, we responded to c1,000 wind farm applications and sustained objections 5% of these (recent examples include Strathy South, Forth and Tay, and Hornsea).  Yet, through dialogue with developers we can reduce impacts and even enhance the natural environment (for example at Blacklaw wind farm in Scotland where we’ve worked with the developer to restore habitat to benefit breeding waders and farmland birds). 

    Third, alongside individual site conversations, we have long argued for a more strategic approach for planning the renewables revolution.  As well as keeping energy supplies secure and affordable with fewer greenhouse gas emissions (the so-called energy trilemma) we want natural environment considerations to be respected and taken into account earlier in the decision-making process.

    Using data provided by a range of organisations including the Crown Estate, the BTO and Ecotricity, we’ve been able to map parts of the UK where technologies which harness the power of the wind, sun, wave and tides could be located with low levels of risk for sensitive species and habitats.  We’ve mapped these alongside physical constraints (such as housing, roads, railways, shipping lanes and other important infrastructure) and policy restrictions (for example protected landscapes or Ministry of Defence land). An example, for solar, is shown in the maps below.

    We then worked out the potential generating capacity of this ‘low ecological risk’ package of renewables, taken other land use needs (such as for food production) into account and, using the DECC energy calculator, constructed three scenarios about what our energy mix could look like in the future.

    The good news is that the UK has the potential to generate up to four times the UK’s current energy consumption through low ecological risk renewables: up to 6,277 TWh/yr* (the total final energy consumption in 2014 was 1661 TWh/yr).  In particular, our results show key opportunities further out to sea, where ecological sensitivities are likely to be lower.  This would require the commercialisation of deep-water technologies such as floating wind turbines.  We also found that there is significant scope for the continued deployment of onshore wind and solar farms with low risk for wildlife – which together could produce a quarter of the UK’s current total energy consumption with low ecological risk.

    The three different scenarios (shown on pages 18-22 of the report and shown below) for the UK’s energy future we developed were: 

    • A mixed renewables scenario, which includes a diverse mix of onshore and offshore technologies. This scenario assumes that carbon capture and storage is available to provide 21% of energy supply.
    • A high marine renewables scenario, which assumes that there is strong progress with offshore technologies such as wind (including floating wind turbines), wave and tidal power, but one where carbon capture and storage is not successfully commercialised
    • A high onshore scenario which assumes that floating wind is not available, and instead includes high levels of onshore wind and solar.  This scenario assumes that carbon capture and storage is available to provide 33% of energy supply.

    The scenarios forecast 56-88% of energy supply in the UK would come from renewable sources compared to 7% today (well, when the the latest annual figures were made available), which means that we'd be providing 89-91% low carbon energy by 2050 when energy using CCS technology is taken into account.  Moreover, a common feature across the three scenarios is the strong focus on energy efficiency and reducing overall energy demand, which reduces the overall need for new energy infrastructure which can pose risks to wildlife.

    But how much will this all cost?  The good news is that the cost estimates are similar to other pathways which are designed to tackle climate change.  The Decc calculator estimates that an energy system that doesn’t tackle climate change would cost £4,615 per person per year in 2050.  Other pathways that seeks to meet climate change targets would increase costs by an average of 9.3%.  Our scenarios have costs of 8.2%-9.5% above the scenario that doesn’t tackle climate change.  It’s worth remembering of course that there is a severe cost to climate inaction and a cost to damaging the natural environment.  The figures we’ve used ignore both these hidden costs.

    Knot flock by Ben Hall (

    The maps are not meant to be prescriptive and the scenarios are certainly not meant to provide a certain picture of the future.  We want, instead, to initiate a debate about what we need to do now to put us on the right path towards a low carbon future which avoids trading away the natural environment. 

    With this in mind, we have offered ten recommendations for governments across the UK to adopt including better use of spatial planning to avoid conflicts with nature conservation, major progress in key areas such as energy efficiency and low carbon innovation, and investment in better ecological data to guide decisions about where renewable energy developments can safely be deployed.

    As a society we have choices, we can either take action today to reduce the risk of climate change or wait to deal with the consequences.  By establishing the Climate Change Act 2008, the UK has chosen to take action to deliver a low carbon economy.  There is then a choice as to whether this low carbon pathway takes nature into account or not. 

    We think it is possible to have a UK energy system that is affordable, secure, low carbon and respects nature. We want and need governments across the UK to share this ambition.  The first opportunity to take this forward will be the plan that the UK Government will develop to deliver the UK’s Fifth Carbon Budget due next month.

    I think that the team behind this report have done a great job and I congratulate them.  Its success, however, will be judged by the conversations it triggers and ultimately the responses by governments. 

    Please do have a read and let me know what you think.

    It would be great to hear your views.

    *TWHr/yr refers to terawatt hours (1012 watt-hours) of electrical energy per year. 

  • Thinking big, thinking about Dartmoor

    When I think of the uplands of England, my mind usually heads north.  So I enjoyed a couple of days a fortnight ago experiencing the southern uplands on Dartmoor.  The visit was a chance to catch up with research our team is doing with others (Exeter University, Dartmoor National Park Authority, Natural England and Devon Birds) to diagnose the reasons for the major declines in summer migrants including cuckoo, whinchat, wood warbler and pied flycatcher.

    John Bridges' image of a cuckoo ( and cuckoo breeding distribution maps from Devon Bird Atlas (bottom left 1988, top right 2007-13) showing a massive contraction in range

    The uplands of the south west are the same but different from those in the north.  The habitats are familiar - blanket bog, heather and grass moors with deep wooded valleys - but Dartmoor (shown below) has its own distinctive cultural heritage, land use and wildlife to match.  There is no driven grouse shooting down south but there are still plenty of challenges such as managing levels of grazing, swaling (a Devonian term for the tradition of burning gorse), and lots and lots of visitors.

    The significance of Dartmoor to the wildlife of the Devon was highlighted with the publication last year of the Devon Bird Atlas.  Many species’ ranges (like cuckoo and whinchat) have retreated to Dartmoor – at 954 square kilometres it is the largest chunk of semi-natural habitat in the county.  These trends are reflected across the UK through volunteer surveys such as the Breeding Bird Survey and the Bird Atlas for Britain and Ireland published last year.  This is why the RSPB will be giving more attention to the suite of species associated with the uplands over the next few years.

    The uplands arguably are where we can make big conservation gains to live up to the Lawtonian* mantra of more, bigger, better and connected protected areas.  We have been surprised and delighted by the speed of recovery of upland species on back of restoration activity.  For example, through the Sustainable Catchment Management Project (SCaMP) with our partner United Utilities in the Peak District, we have done a huge amount to restore the peatlands especially through blocking drains and getting the right grazing in place.  The conservation response has been really impressive leading increases in moorland breeding waders of conservation concern including dunlin which experienced a 775% increase in a decade.  This landscape-scale approach to habitat restoration has benefitted a diverse range of bird species, from red grouse to buzzards. The SCaMP study provides strong evidence of the potential to transform damaged ecosystems.  Across the wider English uplands, over 200,000 ha of blanket bog is in need of restoration. To achieve this, it has been estimated it will require annual capital costs of around £27 million for six years. With investment, there is the potential to secure future benefits for wildlife, carbon, water and people. 

    There is similar opportunity on Dartmoor, which has 8,500 hectares of blanket bog alongside other important habitats such as valley mires, upland heath and its wonderful woodlands.  Nature needs scale and heterogeneity to flourish.  Dartmoor can provide this. What we must provide is the ambition and wherewithal to make it happen.  And this becomes a test of the promised 25 year plan for environment.  What measures will be included in the plan to benefit Dartmoor's people and wildlife?  Will there be new incentives to drive the changes we need to restore habitats and protect species?  Will there be new obligations and resources for organisations to work together to reconcile their competing priorities?  Will there be regular monitoring, reporting and scrutiny to assess progress?  

    Because of the growing importance of Dartmoor to the wildlife of Devon,  attention is increasingly focused on the major landowners such as the Duchy of Cornwall, the National Park authority, South West Water but also the Commoners that have the rights to graze more than a third of the Park.  We need these key players to work with charities like the RSPB and Devon Wildlife Trust to rally around an exciting vision for the future for Dartmoor, with wildlife at its heart, and then to work hard to make it happen.  Get it right, and then we will have done our bit for threatened wildlife of Devon including those summer migrants where improved breeding success can buy us time while we work with others to fix problems across their flyway.   

    One final thought, as today is international biodiversity day, whether on Dartmoor or elsewhere I hope you get out to see some wildlife.

    *I refer, of course, to Professor Sir John Lawton and his seminal report, Making Space for Nature 

    Andy Hay's image of a wood warbler in Dartmoor (


  • 'Digging' for nature: a lesson from Northern Ireland

    On Friday night, the RSPB’s Chairman, Professor Steve Ormerod, gave a short talk to colleagues and partners who had gathered in County Antrim for the annual Council weekend timed to coincide with RSPB’s 50th anniversary of our work in Northern Ireland. 

    We had just spent a memorable afternoon in the sunshine at Lough Beg in Seamus Heaney country (see below) walking through wet grassland to Church Island where we were greeted by a nesting pair of peregrine falcons and finally a moving visit to Heaney’s grave.

    In his talk, Steve alluded to the huge tragedy in Heaney’s writing but also the huge sense of community, of heritage, and enormous celebration of the land and landscape of Northern Ireland.  He concluded by saying,

    I re-read Digging this afternoon, one of Heaney’s most famous poems.

    He reveres how beautifully his father digs potato drills and, before him, how his grandfather cut turf with skill, and strength and precision.

    Heaney concludes he has no spade to follow men like them, but instead he feels how the pen sits snugly in his hand - and decides he'll dig with that.

    We all dig with whatever implements we use the best:  therein lies the essence of partnership: of complementarity and synergy.

    Working together for the common good of nature and our environment is reason enough to celebrate so I would like to say an enormous thank you to our partners and funders for the part you have played in helping us to dig over the last 50 years – and we would like to be at your side for the next 50.”

    That sense of community and partnership was a constant theme throughout our weekend which included a visit to the sumptuous coastal heath and raucous seabird colonies of Rathlin Island (see below), curlew country of Glenwherry and our reserves at Portmore Lough and Belfast Harbour.

    Our Council, which last visited in 2008, will have left with a sense that through our relationships with others, we were having real impact.  Thanks to our work with farmers and on our reserves breeding wader numbers are increasing, we have put the foundations in place to boost the recovery of threatened species like corncrake and chough, while the 150,000 seabirds that choose Rathlin as their home continue to inspire those that make the short trip to our new seabird centre which opened last year.

    It is easy to think that everything is rosy when you are escorted to some of the best places for wildlife, welcomed with warmth, great stories and wonderful food.  But, wildlife in Northern Ireland, like across the UK, remains in trouble (with some species experiencing declines of up to 80% in my lifetime).   This is why we must continue to find innovate ways to inspire others – politicians, landowners and businesses - to use whatever tools they have to dig for nature.

    One final postscript for those that care about these things...

    As tradition dictates, we handed out a cup to the person that correctly predicted the number of species (of birds and mammals) seen during the Council visit.  This year, I fell agonisingly short underbidding by just two.  But I was happy that the cup went to safe hands of our Treasurer who correctly predicted that we would see 82 species.  But, there’s always next year when we shall return to Scotland.