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
  • England's moors: an update on this burning issue

    Four years ago I announced that the RSPB had taken the serious step of making a formal complaint to the European Commission raising our profound concerns at the state of our finest designated wildlife sites in the North English moorlands -  sites  protected on paper as Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) and Special Protection Areas (SPAs) but which have been failing to deliver for nature for too long.

    Our complaint related specifically to the failure of DEFRA, through its statutory agency Natural England, to take adequate measures to tackle serious and persistent damage to one site in particular, Walshaw Moor in the South Pennines. Subsequently the complaint broadened to cover the other Northern English moorland SACs - focussing on the issue of burning the heather and vegetation on the areas of deep peat soils – soils that should be supporting healthy blanket bog and the wildlife that depends on it. 

    The management of many of these places has been intensifying in order to produce more and more red grouse to support the driven grouse shooting industry see here, a land use that has shaped our hills, influenced some of our most iconic landscapes and had significant impacts on our wildlife throughout many decades stretching back into the 19th Century.

    Today we have learned that our complaint and a separate complaint submitted by Ban the Burn have led to the European Commission beginning legal action against the UK Government by issuing a Letter of Formal Notice.  This is the starting gun of a full infraction procedure when the Commission considers a Member State has not applied the relevant laws properly. From the limited information we have it appears that the Commission share our wider concerns over bad application of the Habitats Directive with respect to the blanket bog habitats that are meant to be conserved by SACs in England.  We will update our page dealing with this case (see here) later today.

    We welcome this move wholeheartedly. These are serious matters and much is at stake. 

     

    Moor burn by Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)

     

    For anyone following these issues over the last four years it will not have escaped your notice that positions have become entrenched. This has manifested itself by, on one hand, repeated calls and petitions to ban driven grouse shooting in England and on the other vigorous defence of the role driven grouse shooting plays and especially the 'benefits' of burning. 

    We want a resolution. 

    We have been calling for reform of the way our hills are managed with proper regulation of an industry whose unfettered ambitions to produce ever higher red grouse numbers for the gun are causing growing concern over the direct and indirect  impacts on wildlife, including hen harriers and other raptors, the ability of our moorlands to cope with increasing rainfall and to play a part in reducing the risk of catastrophic floods downstream, and the impact on  deep peat soils that lock up carbon and prevent its release into the atmosphere and into our drinking water. 

    Over the coming days we will see an intensification of the rhetoric from both perspectives. I fully anticipate repeated and sustained pressure for the RSPB to join calls for a ban. 

    That is not our position. 

    We will probably hear more from our critics, funded by backers linked to the grouse industry, who wish to deflect us from our purposeful work.  Will these be direct or via the pages of supportive newspapers? 

    But now through the Hen Harrier Action Plan and this European Commission led process there is a chance of real progress. The challenge is now with DEFRA, Natural England and the driven grouse industry to respond constructively to the growing evidence that change is needed, and to do so positively - we will be returning to this critical issue regularly both here on my blog and on Saving Special Places

    And I want to hear from you. If you are frustrated that the RSPB is not supporting calls for a ban or if you are outraged that decades of traditional management for grouse are being challenged by our actions or if you are in a place where you see scope for a constructive way forward please let me know your views.

    Walshaw Moor from the air

  • Why Defra is wrong about buzzards and why I am angry

    Defra wants to spend close to £400,000 of taxpayers’ money (that’s our money) on a trial in England to reduce buzzard predation of pheasant poults by, amongst other things, shooting out buzzard nests and permanently imprisoning adults. You can read the Defra tender document here.

    I want to tell you why I think that this approach is fundamentally flawed, why I am angry and why we need help to call on Ministers to think again.

    Buzzards are one of the nation's best loved birds of prey.  I remember as a boy walking on the Long Mynd being inspired by seeing a buzzard soar over head and I've always had a soft spot for these fabulous animals. 

    In the early 19th century, buzzards were a common sight throughout the UK, but persecution resulted in widespread declines and by 1875, they remained only in western Britain. Subsequent recovery was undermined in the late 1950s, when rabbit populations were decimated by myxomatosis and it was not until the 1990s that the rate of spread accelerated, with birds recolonising much of their former range.

    Happily for me and for anyone else who loves these birds, buzzards now breed in every UK county.  It is a sad fact in some areas the rate of expansion has been restricted illegally.  Buzzards are still the most persecuted bird of prey, with 291 having been confirmed as poisoned in the last 10 years. And as always with wildlife crime, this figure is only the tip of the iceberg.

    But not everyone loves buzzards. 

    Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)

    Buzzards will take pheasant poults, given the opportunity. Although generally scanvengers, buzzards can be lazy and will take the easiest meal available – no different to you or I nipping down to the fish and chip shop to save cooking.  Current estimates suggest that pheasant shooting leads to 40 million non-native gamebirds being released into the countryside, often at very high densities.  The result is a meat feast that any self-respecting buzzard is unlikely to ignore. 
     
    So how many pheasants do buzzards eat?  An independent report for the British Association for Shooting and Conservation (BASC) found that on average only 1-2% of pheasant poults were taken by birds of prey. This is tiny compared to the numbers which die from other causes, like disease or being run over on the road (which accounts for about 3 million pheasants a year).
     
    Even if predation levels are higher in a few instances, there are plenty of legal, non-contentious techniques for reducing predation, which don’t involve destroying nests or confining wild birds to a life spent in captivity. Scaring devices, visual deterrents, more vegetation and diversionary feeding of buzzards could all make a difference, if done well. A few years ago we endorsed a BASC produced guidance note advising gamekeepers on how to reduce bird of prey predation using some of these techniques.

    And is capturing buzzards likely to work? If you swat a wasp, but leave a pot of sticky honey open to the air, it won't be long before another wasp takes its place. The same is true of buzzards. Two gamekeepers previously employed on the Kempton estate in Shropshire were convicted of, amongst other things, illegally killing buzzards in 2007. They had killed over 100 buzzards in less than six months in one small part of Shropshire. As soon as one buzzard was removed, another (ill-fated) buzzard took its place.  We think that the research project is the wrong answer to address what we see as a minor problem.

    We think Defra is taking the proverbial sledgehammer to a walnut in reacting to calls from a small part of the pheasant shooting community to do something about buzzards.

    And I am angry at what I see as bad use of public money. 

    At a time when there is so little to go around, when we know that there is a massive shortfall in funding required to meet the coalition government's ambition "to protect wildlife... and restore biodiversity", it seems ludicrous to be spending a large slug of public money to protect private interest.

    I can think of loads of ways to spend £400,000 on nature conservation.  Helping save hen harrier from extinction in England would seem a better use of cash.

    I should point out that ours isn’t a knee jerk reaction. We’ve been working with Defra for a while to try to identify possible solutions for the small number of pheasant shoots that – we are told – are experiencing losses to buzzards. I genuinely hoped that we would find common ground and that I wouldn’t have to write this blog. That has not been possible. 

    Buzzards are a conservation success story, due in no small part to effective legal protection and a general warming of attitudes towards buzzards and other birds of prey on the part of many lowland land managers.  While some will simply see this as a pilot project and will tell us not to get over-excited.  I think that misses the point.  If we have a perceived conflict in the countryside, let's first look at whether the conflict is real and serious and then look at the underlying causes of the conflict -  in this case the release every year of c40 millions pheasants into the countryside.  What are the environmental consequences of those releases? Addressing the symptom will do nothing to address underlying problems in the long term. 

    I would like to publicly call on Richard Benyon MP, the Minister responsible, to think again and pull the plug on this project. 

    If you are as angry as I am by this misguided use of public money and attack on buzzards, please step up and write to your MP and ask them to pass on your concerns to Mr Benyon.  I will come back to this subject soon, and may seek your further action and support in the coming weeks.

    If you do write to your MP, you may like to highlight;
    - Predation by buzzards is a relatively small cause of loss of pheasants
    - Buzzards are a native and recovering species, while pheasants are a non-native gamebird
    - The good that £400,000 could do for species of highest conservation concern, such as the hen harrier

    I consider it a huge privilege to see buzzards nearly daily on my way to work.  Let's not do anything to undermine the protection which led to their spectacular comeback.

    Do you think Defra should spend c£400,000 on a trial to reduce buzzard predation of pheasant poults in England by, amongst other things, shooting out buzzard nests and permanently imprisoning adults?  If not, what would you prefer them to spend the money on?

    It would be great to hear your views.

  • RSPB response to the Hen Harrier Action Plan

    For a number of years the breeding population of hen harrier has been on the brink – even failing to breed in England in 2013.  

    The RSPB had been part of an Environment Council-led process to resolve the conflict between hen harrier conservation and grouse moor management.  It was clear that, while providing a forum for increased understanding between different groups, this had not resulted in the necessary action: a different approach was therefore needed.

    In May 2012 (see here) we wrote to Defra and Natural England to urge them to lead and fund a comprehensive conservation plan for hen harriers, endorsed by stakeholders, including landowning and shooting organisations.

    Later on that year I published a blog by my colleague, Jude Lane, about the death of a hen harrier known as Bowland Betty.  It was an emotional report from someone working on the front line of hen harrier conservation and even prompted a call to Jude from the then Environment Minister, Richard Benyon. 

    That phone call and subsequent conversations with Defra officials gave us the belief that they recognised the seriousness of the issue. And it’s one of the reasons why we stuck with the difficult debate on the Action Plan.

    Today, after challenging and lengthy negotiations, this plan is published.  You can read it here.

    Image courtesy of Guy Shorrock

    I welcome this plan - not because it is perfect, it isn’t - but because it reflects real potential for progress on one of the most deep-rooted conflicts in conservation.

    The plan has two main objectives: "The hen harrier has a self-sustaining and well dispersed breeding population in England across a range of habitats including a viable population present in the Special Protected Areas designated for hen harrier; and the harrier population coexists with local business interests and its presence contributes to a thriving rural economy"

    We shall play our part in making it a success, of course focussing on tackling the primary reason for the hen harrier's adverse conservation status - illegal persecution. Our ultimate goal is to secure recovery for hen harriers, while recognising that this is only one aspect of a wider range of impacts of current land management practices in our uplands.

    Last year we provided a home for over 60 pairs of hen harriers throughout the UK and invested in the EU match-funded Hen Harrier LIFE Project, which combines satellite tagging, on-the-ground monitoring, nest protection, investigations work, awareness-raising, and working with volunteer raptor field workers, landowners and local communities to protect hen harriers across northern England and southern & eastern Scotland.


    Image courtesy of Dom Greves

    There are still lots of hurdles to overcome, especially regarding the long-term funding of monitoring and enforcement programmes, but also regarding the detail of proposed lowland reintroduction, its fit with IUCN guidelines, and the legal basis and thresholds for any trial brood management scheme.  As set out in a blog by our chief exec last year, we think there are significant legal, ethical and practical questions to answer, but we’ve not said never to brood management.

    The public profile of the plight of the hen harrier has rightly grown over recent years and there will understandably be a lot of interest on the detail of this plan.  The detail matters, but we also need everyone to work together to implement the plan – its success will ultimately be judged by whether more hen harriers breed in England. 

    The RSPB is committed to working in partnerships to deliver the changes needed to restore the health of our uplands and we hope many others will share these aims and be willing to work together to secure a better future for them. 

    What do you think of the Hen Harrier Action Plan?

    It would be great to hear your views.