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
  • "Suit the action to the word, the word to the action": a message to the Welsh Government over the Gwent Levels

    "Suit the action to the word, the word to the action" [1] should be the guide for all politicians and is especially apt in Wales at the moment.

    Let me explain.   

    Last week, I heard an excellent talk from Andy Fraser from the Welsh Government outlining the good things that have been happening in the Welsh Assembly lately...

    ...the Well-being of Future Generations Act which set public bodies in Wales seven goals including one to make a resilient Wales, with a biodiverse natural environment and healthy functioning ecosystems and another to create a globally responsible Wales with sustainable development at the heart of decision-making.

    ...the Environment (Wales) Act which established the principles of sustainable management of natural resources as the purpose of Natural Resources Wales (the Welsh statutory body for the environment) and introducing mandatory emission reduction targets for greenhouse gases in Wales of at least 80% by 2050.

    All this sounds very seductive: biodiverse natural environments, healthy functioning ecosystems, sustainable development principles, reducing emissions and sustainable management of natural resources.

    It is, therefore, highly disappointing that right now the Welsh Government is consulting on draft Orders to divert a six-lane motorway through the heart of the beautiful Gwent Levels. If the scheme gets the go ahead the M4 motorway will be directed straight through four Sites of Special Scientific Interest which protect vulnerable habitats and species such as the water vole, shrill carder bee as well lapwings, otters and the great silver water beetle.

    Gwent Levels by David Wootton (

    The Welsh Government is quick to congratulate itself for passing “world leading legislation” on well-being and the environment. And there is much to be admired. But we can’t measure a government on the words in legislation it passes. It has to be judged on its actions.

    In spite of the progress made, highly damaging and wildly expensive projects like the M4 motorway diversion are still going ahead. If we’re truly thinking about the well-being of future generations and the environment then ploughing six lanes of tarmac through sites protected for nature shouldn't even be considered.

    All is not lost. 

    There is something that we can all do though. The Welsh Government is consulting on its M4 plans and anyone in the UK can ask for it to be cancelled. The RSPB is taking a lead and has produced an easy online tool to register your objection.

    All you need to do is click here, add your details and personalise your response if you like. Thousands of people have already taken part and I hope you can spend just a minute of your time to add your voice. We want the Welsh Government to turn the fine words of its new legislation into tangible action and protect the unique Gwent Levels for nature and for future generations.

    [1] From Hamlet, act 3, scene 2 to mark the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare

  • Ratification of the Paris treaty: a big day for climate action and lessons for nature

    One of the recurring themes of yesterday’s seminar on the future of UK biodiversity policy was the role of effective regulation and incentives, supported by clear government ambition, to both protect and drive investment in natural resource management. 

    We are still in the early days of trying to work out how best to capture the value of nature in decision-making and support pro-nature business behaviour but I was buoyed by the growing consensus about the direction of travel.  While some, like the Welsh Government, have a clear plan, within England, we still await the publication of the 25 year plan for the environment – now due after the EU Referendum.

    I think we have a lot to learn from the way that climate change policy has evolved over the past decade. 

    Today, for example, world leaders are gathering in New York for the signing ceremony of the Paris global climate treaty. While many have argued, rightly, that the Paris Treaty does not go far enough, the new commitment to keep global temperatures well below 2oC and on a path to 1.5 oC is already having a profound impact.

    Kittiwakes - at risk from a changing climate (Andy Hay,

    The winds of change are sweeping across the worlds of businesses and finance as fossil fuels and their associated industries no longer look like appealing assets. Indeed, I noted with interest that Peabody, the world’s  largest private-sector coal company filed for bankruptcy last week while the papers are full of reports of solar power companies booming globally. Remarkably, even Saudi Arabia has stated  this month that it no longer wants its economy to be dependent on oil in 20 years time.

    Companies and countries are responding to global signals about our collective desire to decarbonise the global economy.

    Closer to home, good foundations remain in place with the Climate Change Act (2008) providing the statutory drive for action.   It established a long term target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from a 1990 baseline by 80% by 2050 and then obliged the introduction of five year carbon budgets to ensure that we were on the trajectory.

    This has shaped policy and business has responded.

    However, the Paris treaty has now raised ambition in line with science.  The UK, like the rest of the EU is waiting before it revises its climate ambition for a major review in 2018 to be conducted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). This will look at the implications of cutting emissions dramatically to take us on a path to limiting temperature rise to 1.5 oC.

    Waiting on the outcomes of the review might seem sensible were it not that the EU’s new package of climate and energy laws (which set us on a path for up to 2.4oC warming) will be negotiated by all member states during 2016-17. NGOs including the RSPB have been robust in highlighting this issue.

    Here in the UK, the Government is currently deciding on the targets and policies needed to reduce emissions in the 2028-32 period (known as the Fifth Carbon Budget). In evidence the RSPB recently submitted to the Energy and Climate Change Select Committee’s inquiry on the Fifth Carbon Budget, we highlight just how crucial delivering substantial emissions reductions is to securing a future for wildlife. Indeed I have posted before on the very significant impacts climate change is expected to have on the natural world.

    While the UK Government played a valuable role in the Paris discussions, greater action is now needed at home.  Cuts in measures to support carbon reduction has left us veering away from having the means to deliver the emissions reductions needed. Furthermore, problems with the way carbon is counted in our carbon budgets must be addressed to prevent any carbon budget looking more ambitious than it really is.

    So, for both climate and for nature policy, we need ambition that is commensurate with need, legislative certainty and incentives that drive innovative investment to realise that change. 

    For climate, this means the UK Government must ensure that UK law reflects the ambition required to stay within safe climate limits as set out in the Paris treaty so that our emissions reach net zero by 2050. Climate Minister Andrea Leadsom recently that “The Government believes we will need to take the step of enshrining the Paris goal of net zero emissions in UK law”, this needs to be followed by swift action if we are to ensure a safe future for all the species affected by climate change including our own.

    And, as the UK Government ponders its 25 year plan for the environment, I encourage it to look again at the lessons from climate change policy and develop a plan that matches the needs of nature.

  • In 25 years time...

    Today, I am speaking at a Westminster Forum seminar on the future of policy on biodiversity and natural capital in the UK.  Here is a long-hand version of what I plan to say.  Do have a read and then let me know what you think.   


    Imagine a future where....

    ...there is enough land for the food we need and for wildlife because we use the food we buy, we consume only what we need and farmers provide habitat for wildlife on their land because they know it helps maintain yields in the long term

    ...fishermen can make a living while safeguarding fish populations least 20% of our land and seas are really well managed for wildlife as well as people, and where wild species aren’t just protected, but thriving is increasingly popular for land to be bought, enhanced for wildlife and passed on with legally binding conservation covenants

    ...everybody can have good contact with wildlife within 300 metres of where they live

    ...all our energy needs are provided by the power of the sun, wind and waves

    ...landowners welcome tourists on to their land to show them birds of prey

    ...children in England send emails to children in Ghana letting them know when their migratory birds have arrived in our spring

    ...we have an annual celebration of the special wildlife on our overseas territories

    ...we have annual parliamentary debates to agree action to improve the state of nature

    ...we are proud to have the best environment in the world because we have restored wildlife populations in a generation

    This is what, as an optimist, I imagine when I read the Conservative party’s manifesto commitment “to develop a 25 Year Plan to restore the UK’s biodiversity”.  It reflects the ambition of the Convention on Biological Diversity (and its Aichi targets for 2020) whose goal is for humans to live in harmony with nature.

    The challenge is how to turn this dream land into a real land.


    Today, we know that 60% of species for which we have data have declined in my lifetime (see here).  We know that while 10.6% of UK land is designated as important for nature conservation, only half of that is currently well managed for wildlife (see government figures here).  We also know that about a third of the services that nature gives us (so-called ecosystem services) are degraded (see here).  Yet, through targeted conservation action, we have been able to recover the populations of some of our most threatened species like cirl bunting, bittern and red kite. 

    Image Courtesy of Chris Gomersall (


    Our approach to emergency care is not possible for all species everywhere.  We need to do more to prevent declines.  That means tackling both the proximate drivers of change (such as habitat loss or degradation - often associated with changes in climate, land use or management) as well as the ultimate drivers (a growing population that consumes more and an economic system that fails to fully recognise and account for the impacts of our choices on nature and the wider environment).  


    It’s not rocket science.

    We need...

    ...strong and sustained leadership from both governments and the private sector: political leaders to set out a clear and ambitious vision for our future environment, and to put in place the tools needed to deliver that vision.  And business leaders to be forward-looking, to recognise the value of natural capital in their businesses, and to prioritise long-term sustainability over short term economic gains.

    ...a long term planning:  in England, the Government is currently writing a 25 year plan for the environment. This would take us to the year 2040, beyond the time horizon set out in the Aichi targets and into a world that could be experiencing significant impacts of climate change. In order to address the major challenges we will face in that time, we need commitment to long-term environmental planning. However, for such a plan to actually deliver a lasting legacy, it needs to cut across government departments, and be able to withstand political upheaval - I cannot see how this can be achieved without legislation to guarantee political consensus for the long term.  And I struggle to see how we can do this without good local/regional spatial mapping to help us reconcile the social, economic and environmental needs.

    ...the right tools in our toolkit: which must include regulation, as well as incentives and voluntary approaches.  From the recent fitness check on the EU Birds and Habitats Directives (the most important bits of nature legislation we have), we know that:

    • They work: species and habitats under their protection fair better than those that are not protected
    • They work best where they are properly implemented and enforced by government (see the report ‘From Nature Alert to Action’ published by BirdLife Europe last week)
    • That the public support them: over half a million EU citizens recently stepped up to call for the Directives to better implemented and enforced, rather than weakened. This response broke all the records, and over a hundred thousand of those that responded were based here in the UK.

    Good regulation is not only essential for nature, it can also be good for business, levelling the playing field so that those that are committed to safeguarding natural capital are not at a competitive disadvantaged. And this can help drive innovation too.

    We also know that incentive payments can be effective in leveraging positive environmental change, and that such approaches (such as agri-environment schemes and other methods for paying for ecosystem services) are particularly important for delivering environmental benefits on land outside our protected area network. 

    However, for such approaches to add value in practice, they have to work alongside an effective regulatory framework (the carrot AND the stick). We’ve seen examples of this working for example... Medmery on the south coast where a flood risk management project has helped to protect 350 homes while also contributing to a statutory obligation to restore 100 hectares of coastal habitat annually and

    ...our work with United Utilities and with Northern Ireland Water is showing that restoring our uplands is good for wildlife, good for water quality and therefore good for business and people.  This would have been possible without changes to the rules governing water company investments that enabled upstream management and, especially in England, a clear political steer to improve the condition of our finest wildlife sites.

    Image courtesy of Andy Hay (

    Effective regulation will be key to the success of innovative approaches like biodiversity offsetting and natural capital accounting.  Without it, there is a danger that either nothing happens or that we end up too easily trading away fought so hard to protect over recent decades.

    ...powerful statutory agencies with the confidence and independence (and resources) to say and do the right thing adopting an ‘outcomes approach’ that safeguards the environment, that values long-term sustainability over short term economic gains and that places the protection and restoration of species and habitats at its heart.

    ...a feisty and committed NGO sector that inspires people to act and cajoles governments and businesses to do more.


    All of this is possible – we know what works because different parts of the UK have been starting to do it... England, we’ve been trying new approaches to landscape-scale conservation through our Nature Improvement Areas. Where these have been most effective their success has been driven by strong leadership, a clear vision for what they are trying to achieve, effective partnerships and adequate resourcing. Wales, the Environment Act builds on the 2015 Wellbeing of Future Generations Act which commits them to becoming ‘a nation that maintains and enhances a biodiverse natural environment with healthy, functioning ecosystems that support social, economic and ecological resilience and the capacity to adapt to change (for example, climate change)’. Scotland, strategic environmental planning has been established to address the challenge of climate change. Through their 2016-2021 Land Use Strategy, the Scottish government set out their Principles for Sustainable Land Use, aimed at guiding policy and decision making by Government and across the public sector. 

    What's more, I am looking forward to the proposed pathfinder projects in England, as this will offer new opportunities to learn about how to deliver multiple benefits at scale.


    Effective monitoring and clear milestones are vital in order to ensure that we stay on track. Any environmental strategy – whether it is in England or Scotland or anywhere else in the world - should set out clear objectives and report on progress. For both voluntary and regulatory policy approaches, the evidence suggests that clear targets combined with robust/transparent monitoring and reporting, are key to delivering long-term success.

    The ultimate test of course of whether species and habitats are doing better, whether we have lived up to the spirit of Professor Sir John Lawton's mantra of "more, bigger, better and joined" protected areas and whether we have met our international biodiversity targets.

    Although we have some of the best data in the world, every year the Office of National Statistics publishes our biodiversity indicators and no-one notices – no fanfare.  We need greater political profile for nature conservation, and for why it matters for us all

    That’s why NGOs like the RSPB, the Wildlife Trusts and National Trust are doing more to engage people with nature and to get them active.  An active public creates the demand for a stronger political response to the state of nature and increases the chances of making our dream land a real land.  

    The prize is great: productive woodlands that are carpeted with bluebells and reverberate to the sound of nightingales; uplands that store carbon, slow run off, and are graced by hen harriers, glisten with sundews and ring to the sound of curlew; and seas that are sustainably fished and alive with dolphins, sea horses and puffins.  I want this for us now and for the next generation. 

    Bluebells, Wood of Cree, Dumfries and Galloway Andy Hay (