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
  • When humans and wildlife collide...

    Am off to Bristol today to participate in a meeting of Defra's Biodivesity Programme Board. This is the group that has the responsibility for ensuring targets in England's Biodversity Strategy are on track.

    These targets (for species, habitats, sites and ecosystems) are a translation of global commitments which the UK Government signed up to at the Convention on Biological Diversity meeting in Nagoya, Japan in 2010. Report on progress comes through a publication of indicators later in the year.

    These indicators provide a signal as to how well we are doing to fulfil our legal and political commitments. We all play our part in trying to meet these targets - Defra, its agencies, landowners, businesses, NGOs and individuals - but ultimately, of course, the buck stops with ministers. I trust that they are keeping a close eye on the performance of this group.

    As I go into this meeting, there is a lot on my mind.

    This morning, for example, we'll see the publication of the Farmland Bird Index - a composite assessment of how 19 species dependent on the farmed landscape are faring. I hope for good news, but I expect the worse. This index has shown a long-term downward trend, a trend that was only halted by investment in subsidies to support wildlife friendly farming. The trend for birds is replicated in other groups for example farmland butterflies and carabid beetles. The index is published during a period when the new agri-environment scheme is being designed. While there is less money to go around, because of effective lobbying by the NFU, it is vital that the new schemes are well designed and tailored to meet the needs of threatened sites and species. This is the test of whether the schemes provide good use of tax-payers money.

    Yesterday, we announced our new Hen Harrier initiative (funded through the EU's LIFE+ programme) which will help us play our part in saving this iconic species which is clinging on as a breeding species in England but is threatened - due to persecution - throughout the UK. As our project manager, Blánaid Denman, said yesterday "The cross-border project provides a huge boost to our efforts to monitor and protect hen harriers. Working together with volunteers and other organisations, we’ll have more eyes and ears on the hills than ever before, using satellite tagging, winter-roost monitoring and nest protection to deter persecution, identify the important areas for these birds and highlight where they’re most at risk.” Our intention is simple - to stamp out illegal killing.

    On Tuesday, I wrote about the threats posed by diffuse pollution and water abstraction to two of our most important wildlife sites: Sutton and Catfield Fens. How we treat these sites is an indication of the seriousness we take our responsibility for protecting our finest wildlife sites.

    And, we still await the decision of ministers as to whether they will grant a public inquiry regarding Medway Council's decision to grant outline planning permission for building 5,000 houses at Lodge Hill - one of our finest wildlife sites for nightingales, grassland and woodland.

    These are just four conservation stories but they illustrate what happens when humans needs and wildlife needs collide: when we want to grow more food alongside wildlife, when we want to increase a shootable surplus of grouse and when we want to build homes for humans on the homes of nature.

    The 'short' vision of the Convention on Biological Diversity provides, in nutshell, our challenge: to live in harmony with nature. We need this vision to be translated into the language and actions of any political party and of special interest groups for developers, farming and grouse shooting.

    Get it wrong and it is not just wildlife that suffers, we all do. And that's why today and everyday, we'll be fighting to save our shared home.

  • The case for Catfield (part 2)

    Catfield and Sutton Fens are two really special places.  They are home to a remarkable number of rare and threatened species: 109 Red Data Book species including well over 90% of the UK population of the endangered Fen Orchid.

    Readers of this blog will know that I’m very fond of these sites (see here).  Their importance means that we take our management responsibility very seriously indeed (in the case of Catfield, on behalf of the owners Butterfly Conservation).  But, like so many of the sites that we manage, not everything is in our control.

    Recent events have served to illustrate the vulnerability of these sites that are tucked away in the heart of the Norfolk Broads. A vulnerability that ought to grab the attention of anyone interested in preventing further declines of already threatened species.

    Sutton Fen, Ben Hall rspb-images.com

    Over the next month or so the Environment Agency will decide whether to grant two new abstraction license renewals adjacent to the sites.  Allowing local land owners to continue to take large volumes of water from this wetland haven will pose a very real threat to the fen and some of the UK’s rarest species that make a home there. A dramatic, single decision that will no doubt get attention and something we are primed and ready to fight if we need to.

    However, whilst this unfolding drama will grab the headlines, a more subtle but insidious story can often be overlooked.  In addition to the threat of water abstraction, since 2010 Catfield and Sutton Fens have been experiencing the impact of a more subtle menace, known in the business as ‘diffuse pollution’.  This is when surface water runs off agricultural land after heavy rainfall, washing farmland soils into the fen.  Sediments loaded with nutrients such as nitrate and phosphate flood the delicately balanced natural environment, encouraging the growth of common species such as reed and willow, at the expense of smaller, rarer flowering species such as orchids.

    Water, laden with sediment, doesn’t have much oxygen in it, which can also make it difficult for invertebrates to survive.  Imagine if you were one of the rare water beetles making a home on the site, the crystal clear oxygen rich water that you are used to turns to an orange, chemical filled soup.

    Last week, the latest chapter in this second story was written.  After a night of heavy rainfall, sediment filled water coursed into Catfield and Sutton Fens.  The team tells me that by day 2, 1.5 hectares of SSSI had been affected.  By day 3 this had gone up to 3 hectares.  Beyond this area, I am led to believe that the chemicals are likely to still be having an impact up to 2 km away and it is very likely as winter weather sets in this kind of event will continue to happen, causing yet more damage.  My colleagues were pleased to see the Environment Agency staff on site just hours after we reported this event as a formal pollution incident.

    Since 2010, when the team discovered this new threat to these rich wetland sites, colleagues have spent time and money putting in water control structures, ditch management and the placement of reedbeds as filtration systems to help lessen the impacts.  They have now reached a point where they have done all they can, and now look to the Environment Agency and Natural England to investigate the issue thoroughly and take all appropriate steps to mitigate any further impacts.  In 2013 they recognised that there was a real problem, and we hope that these recent events will catalyse action.

    We can see some simple measures that can improve the situation, such as ensuring that basic soil protection measures are enforced.  All we can do now is wait to see the category of severity the Environment Agency assign to this case.  This guides the work they will do to take action to protect the abundant and rare wildlife found across Catfield and Sutton Fens from similar events in future.

    My visit to Catfield and Sutton Fens has been one of my highlights of 2014. They are fragile and special places. I am left with the overwhelming feeling that two of the most special fens in western Europe deserve far better and we should be more proactive in dealing with the threats they face.  That's why I am going to keep a close eye on what happens next.  I hope to be able to provide an update on the actions that Environment Agency and Natural England propose in the coming weeks.

  • Giving People (and Nature) a Home

    Yesterday the Labour leader Ed Miliband launched the report of the Lyons Housing Review (here), which sets out how a future Labour Government could deliver 200,000 homes a year by the end of the next Parliament.

    It's good to see this report. There’s no doubt that there is a significant housing need in England, and whoever is in power after next year's election will have to try and address this issue.  We want to work with housebuilders and local communities to build places that are great for both people and nature.  That's why we’re working with Barratt on a major housing development in southern England with the aim of setting a new benchmark for nature friendly sustainable housing. Expect to hear more about this in the coming months.

    My colleague Simon Marsh was one of a group of twelve commissioners who worked with Sir Michael Lyons in producing his report. Simon, you may recall, had previously been involved in developing the National Planning Policy Framework (here) and was again doing this in a personal capacity but with the support of the RSPB: a housing programme of this scale has potentially huge impacts on nature, so it’s important to get it right.

    Radipole Lake RSPB reserve, Weymouth, Dorset (Dave Wootton rspb-images.com)

    There’s plenty of detail in the report and 39 separate recommendations.

    The report’s conclusion that fundamental upheaval in the planning system should be avoided is very welcome - the planning system seems to be subject to perpetual reform - but it doesn’t duck the challenge of proposing changes where necessary.

    Any proposals aimed at strengthening strategic planning must be welcomed, because this is critical to ensuring that new homes are built in the right places, respecting places which are special for wildlife – whether greenfield or brownfield.

    The stronger emphasis on brownfield land needs to be coupled with a recognition that some brownfield land is valuable for wildlife and is not suitable for development. Some ‘brownfield’ land may also be more green than brown.

    Lodge Hill in Kent is a case in point. You will know that we are strongly objecting to a planning application for 5,000 homes on this former MoD site. Development here would destroy most of a SSSI designated for nightingales and grassland. The proponents claim that the site is more than 50% brownfield; our assessment is that it’s more like 15%. Whether it’s greenfield or brownfield, however, policies in the National Planning Policy Framework protect SSSIs, and we ask that the shadow DCLG ministers commit to maintaining this protection. In the meantime, we and c11,000 people that have campaigned on this issue wait to hear from the current DCLG minister whether he will ‘call-in’ the application to make the decision himself and save the nightingales.

    As I have said before - building 5,000 houses on a SSSI would set a terrible precedent for how to meet our housing need.  If, under a worse case scenario, every block of 5,000 houses were built on a SSSI, that would mean 40 SSSIs a year could be lost to housing development every year.

    Our experience at Lodge Hill also makes us nervous about proposals to scale up the release of public land for housing. While the planning system in theory should sort out what’s suitable land for development and what isn’t, it would be much better to have a process that screens sites for environmental sensitivities at an early stage, so that public money isn’t wasted pursuing planning permission which should never be granted.

    On a more positive note, we particularly welcome the recommendations on good quality, design and sustainability, which are essential to ensuring that new homes are good to live in, good for the planet and good for local wildlife.

    As the report notes, “Green infrastructure provision is an essential part of major new housing development, which provides an opportunity to enhance biodiversity on land of low environmental value, as well as helping to minimise flood risk. Quality can be added from the scale of the individual home (through low-cost measures such as nest bricks and wildlife-friendly garden planting) right up to large-scale habitat creation in country parks.”

    What do you think of the Lyons review and how do you think we should meet our housing needs without damaging wildlife?

    It would be great to hear your views.