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
  • Why we march and what we want

    Why we march

    There is a letter in the Times today signed by 49 leaders of development, faith and environment groups (including Mike Clarke of the RSPB).  It explains why tens of thousands of people will be marching tomorrow.  This is what it says...


    This weekend, thousands of people will march in London and in cities around the world, calling for action to tackle climate change. At the talks in Paris, our leaders must confront the ecological destruction, poverty and injustice that climate pollution carries in its wake, and act before it is too late.

    Sadly due to tragic events including in Paris, Beirut, Baghdad and Bamako, the Climate March in Paris has been cancelled, though many of us will still join with Parisians for other events across the city.

    As a wide range of development, environment, faith and other organisations, we believe that hope lies in acting together to address the shared problems faced by humanity.

    Thousands of citizens of all ages, races and religions, will be taking to the streets. No violence, no hatred will shake our determination, or undermine our trust in each other to make a better world."

    If you love wildlife and are concerned by the impacts of climate change (brilliantly document by a Birdlife report - here - published yesterday), then please do think about taking part.  

    What we want

    The outcome of the Paris negotiations will be an important moment to send the right signals to economies of the world that we are on the path to a zero carbon future to avoid dangerous climate change.  

    This is why we will be calling on world leaders to ensure that the Treaty delivers real ambition. Where Governments’ commitments fall short of what the planet needs (ie collective emission reduction targets which will avoid global temperature rises of no more than 2 degrees C above pre-industrial levels), we want to see mechanisms in place to enable ambition to be ratcheted up in the future.

    The RSPB has attended the negotiations, working under the umbrella of BirdLife International, for many years. My colleagues have pushed hard for strong ambition from a global climate treaty. At the same time they have co-ordinated NGO efforts in ensuring strong wildlife protection measures are included in proposals to reduce deforestation emissions in developing countries, and in ensuring that all emissions are counted from forests and land in developed countries.

    We are all too aware how political these negotiations will be. My colleagues have worked hard to ensure that there are good options in the negotiation text to protect wildlife and forests and their efforts will be focused on ensuring that these are not traded away as pawns in the bigger political game.

    There is everything to play for and I look forward to keeping you updated with news from the front line in this important process.

    In the meantime, I hope to see you in London at midday tomorrow. 

  • Taking the lead

    Proceedings of scientific symposiums are often not the most exciting reads. There are frequently full of fascinating and useful information and as such are vital in informing our conservation actions, but the fact remains they are usually written by scientists, for scientists, which means you sometimes need to take a fair bit of time to sift through and identify the key conclusions.

    However, you may have noted that the Proceedings of the Oxford Lead Symposium were published yesterday especially as it was covered extensively on the BBC (for example see here). The Symposium had been organised by Oxford University about this time last year and it brought together a range of experts on the impacts of lead ammunition use on wildlife and human health. I wasn’t able to attend, but several colleagues were in the audience including our Principle Research Biologist, Professor Rhys Green, who contributed two papers.

    It has, as I signalled on Monday, been a busy week so I’ve not had time to read and digest all 154 pages of the Proceedings yet. But what is clear is that even on a cursory read, the take home message is absolutely clear: whether you’re from Denmark or Germany, the UK or Sweden; whether you’re an expert on wildlife, human health or ammunition ballistics - the time to phase out lead ammunition is now.  If you have ten minutes, I recommend reading the closing remarks from Professor Ian Newton.  Having summarised the evidence (which includes up to 100,000 waterfowl estimated to die each year from lead poisoning), he concludes,

    "There are two approaches towards getting hunters to switch from lead to less toxic alternatives. One is by persuasion; informing them of the facts and hoping they will make the switch themselves. This approach has clearly not worked: witness the continued use of lead shot over wetlands for more than a decade after the 1999 ban; witness the continuing opposition by some hunters and their organisations to restrictions in the use of lead. This leaves us with the only other approach which is mandatory. All other major uses of lead have long been banned or strictly regulated by law, yet this particular use, which provides a direct and important route for lead into the human blood stream, remains unrestricted. Legislation proved necessary in Denmark to cut the use of lead; as in Britain, the dissemination of scientifically-collected findings and appeals to the better nature of hunters had not worked. Danish hunters now accept it, and (as confirmed by surveys) would not go back."

    This is encouraging as it tallies with the UK Government’s commitment under a Convention on Migratory Species resolution agreed last year which again sets a clear roadmap to a lead free future. Scientists and policy experts are on the same page on this one. With more science supporting the need for action, we look forward to working with Government and other stakeholders to deliver the necessary change.

    And it’s clear that there is an expectant public watching and waiting. An e-petition has been set up asking for an end to lead ammunition use. This could be a further useful contribution to the debate, so please do go and look at this and consider adding your name. Showing Government there is a strong desire for action can only help encourage change which benefits wildlife and people.  The petition is in line with RSPB policy and so we support it.

    Proceedings of scientific symposiums might not always be the easiest read. But when scientists, policy experts and the general public are all pointing us in the same direction, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that the time for action is now.

  • Documenting crimes against wild birds

    Today we publish our annual Birdcrime report- the only centralised source of incident data for wild bird crime in the UK.  I am incredibly proud of this document as it reflects the hard work and dedication of volunteers, the RSPB’s Investigations team, the police, the statutory nature conservation agencies and others in tackling wildlife crime.  While impressive, the report remains a sobering read.

    Here are this year's headlines.. 2014, the RSPB received 179 reports of shooting and destruction of birds of prey, including the confirmed shooting of 23 buzzards, nine peregrines, three red kites and a hen harrier.

    ...there have also been 72 reported incidents of wildlife poisoning and pesticide-related offences. Confirmed victims of poisoning include 23 red kites, 9 buzzards and four peregrine falcons.

    ...these figures are believed to represent only a fraction of the illegal persecution in the UK, with many incidents thought to be going undetected and unreported.

    The messages in our latest report are clear...

    ...bird of prey persecutions still continues in many parts of the UK, and is one reason that is stopping some of our native birds of prey from recovering to their natural levels.  

    ...despite decades of legal protection, raptor persecution has been persistent over a wide geographical area with negative conservation impacts for several species. This is evidenced by a number of scientific studies and Government reports. As a result, the Government has made raptor persecution a national wildlife crime priority. protect birds of prey we must defend the laws that protect them, in particular the EU Nature Directives. We need a consistent approach and effort across the UK to protect our most threatened birds of prey, such as the hen harrier and golden eagle, from illegal persecution.

    To me, each incident illustrated in the report shines a spotlight onto the almost hidden world of wildlife crime. These crimes against our most vulnerable species often occur in the remotest areas of our countryside, away from the public eye. On occasions it seems like a small miracle that any cases get to court at all, depending, as they do, on witnesses not only recognising that a crime has occurred, but knowing how to report it.

    Many of these crimes are hard to police and serve as a reminder that tackling wildlife offences requires both effective penalties and suitably resourced enforcing authorities.

    I am often asked about the RSPB's position on proposals to strengthen protection for wild birds.  So for the avoidance of doubt, here is a summary of what we believe is needed...

    ...we support the role of the National Wildlife Crime Unit to aid police dealing with wildlife crime and have urged a rethink of proposed budget cuts which could impact on species protection.

    ...we want full implementation of the laws which protect those species, including more effective penalties, to enable enforcement and provide a genuine deterrent to those who stand to gain from wildlife crime. For example we think the introduction of a robust system of licensing to govern driven grouse shooting and vicarious liability for wildlife crimes throughout the UK could lead to many improvements. We are disappointed that the Law Commission's review of wildlife law (here) failed to pick up these recommendations 

    ...we will continue to share knowledge with partner organisations to help in the fight against wildlife crime in the UK and throughout the EU, via our involvement in the European Network against Environmental Crime (ENEC).

    Our campaign in defence of the EU Nature Directives has demonstrated (once again) the huge public support for protection of the environment in the UK and throughout Europe. And, the over the past two years we've seen growing public unrest about the ongoing illegal killing of wild birds.  This has expressed itself through the Hen Harrier Days which started in 2014 and protests in the streets which followed the mass poisoning of red kites and buzzards in Scotland.  These represent just a small fraction of the hundreds of thousands who have called for an end to bird of prey persecution.

    And, it is clear that many members of the shooting community want an end to illegal persecution and make a significant contribution to conservation.  While we will continue to work with the police to crack down on illegality, we will also continue to work with anyone that wants to see our birds of prey fly free from harm. 

    It is only by working together that we can finally consign bird of prey persecution to the history books.