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
  • 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.

  • The state of our birds and why Bob matters

    At the weekend, I read Caitlin Moran's brilliant piece in the Times Magazine about how she was missing the birds (if you have a subscription, you can read it here).  It is raw, it hurts but unfortunately it is real - there are 44 million fewer birds today in the UK than when Caitlin was growing up.  And, as demonstrated by the State of Nature report last year, the declines in wild birds have been replicated across many other groups, with 60% of all species (for which we have adequate trend data) having declined in this period.

    We've been trying to tap into people's latent concern about wildlife through a different sort of campaign - Vote for Bob.  It is deliberately quirky to try to find new ways to get people to encourage politicians to give a strong showing for nature in their manifestos for next May's General Election.  And I was delighted to accompany Bob yesterday to the House of Commons yesterday to report to representatives from the political parties that over 100,000 people have, in just two months, signed up to Bob's campaign.  The campaign is now supported by Buglife, Butterfly Conservation, Mammal Society and I hope many more join in.  The more people that support Bob and use their voice for nature, the harder it will be for politicians to ignore.

    Bob being mobbed by French students


    Bob and me (I'm the one holding the placard)

    The case for action couldn't be stronger.

    Today, the latest of State of UK Birds* is published, this time with a focus on our summer migrants - those birds that grace our skies for just four months of the year during spring and summer months.  Working with our partners, we've created a new index (see below).  Those birds that winter in the humid zone of Africa – stretching across the continent from southern Senegal to Nigeria and beyond - such as whinchat, nightingale, tree pipit and spotted flycatcher show the most dramatic declines.  The indicator for this group of species has dropped by just over 70 per cent since the late 1980s.

    It is no wonder that Caitlin feels like "Gatsby, alone and melancholy": turtle dove down 88 per cent since 1995, wood warbler down 66 per cent, cuckoo down 49 per cent. 

    Through our Birds without Borders project, we are taking action to...

    ... improve the birds' breeding success here in the UK (for example by working with Natural England, Pensthorpe and Conservation Grade on Operation Turtle Dove)

    ...ensure safe passage on migration (for example by working with Birdlife partners to end unsustainable hunting)

    ...deliver sustainable conservation initiatives on their wintering grounds that provide benefits for both migrant birds and people (for example by supporting the work of  Birdlife partners in the arid Sahel zone in northern Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Senegal and Mauritania as well as doing research alongside our partner in Ghana. Thankfully, the risk of Ebola in these countries has remained low and so has not yet had a direct impact on this important work).

    All of this adds up to being one of the RSPB's most ambitious but important projects. You can read more about this project and find out how you can help here.

    I want spring and summers in the years ahead to be more noisy and more colourful. And I don't want Caitlin Moran to feel "alone and melancholy". And this is why you should vote for Bob and why Birds without Borders project must be successful.

    *State of UK Birds is produced by a partnership of BTO, WWT, JNCC, Natural England, Natural Resources Wales, Scottish Natural Heritage and Northern Ireland Environment Agency and the RSPB.

  • Good news from RSPB reserves in 2014

    Through work and play, I have managed to visit about 25 of the RSPB's 210 reserves over the past year or so.  And, with our AGM coming up in a couple of weeks, it seems timely to report on how they have fared this year.  My instinct was this has been a good year: whereever I went, wildlife seemed to be flourishing and the spring and summer weather had been kind.  But as our head of reserves ecology, Jo Gilbert, said to me the other day, the weather might have been good but you need the right management in place for good things to happen.

    And good things have been happening.   Here Malcolm Ausden from Jo's team offers some highlights...

    Stilts & the Spanish Connection

    Following recent breeding in the UK by Little Bitterns, Great White Egrets and Spoonbills, 2014 was a spectacular year in the UK for another wetland species - Black-winged Stilt. Two large influxes of stilts occurred in Britain this spring, with the majority of birds turning up on shallow, fresh or brackish lagoons (these are a rare habitat in the UK) on RSPB reserves. Larger numbers of stilts usually occur in Northwest Europe when their main breeding areas in Spain are dry in spring.  Single pairs of stilts then settled to nest at Cliffe Pools RSPB Reserve in Kent, and at Medmerry RSPB Reserve in West Sussex, with a third pair dropping an egg (which appears to have been quickly predated) at Fen Drayton Lakes RSPB Reserve in Cambridgeshire. The pairs at Cliffe and Medmerry received 24-hour protection, and both hatched chicks, with the Medmerry pair going on to fledge three young. This is only the third time that Black-winged Stilts are known to have fledged young in this country, the last time being 27 years ago. An additional pair of stilts also bred successfully at another site in the UK this year. At Medmerry, the stilts nested on an area designed to prevent flooding of land and property upstream.

    Cliffe Pools, Rolf Williams rspb-images.com

    We have been taking into account the requirements of bird species that have the potential to establish (or re-establish) regular breeding populations in Britain, in our design of new wetland habitat on RSPB Reserves. For example, at our exciting coastal wetland re-creation project at Wallasea Island Wild Coast in Essex, we are aiming to provide suitable conditions for breeding Spoonbills.  [I shall say more about Wallasea after my visit in early November].

    Inexperienced youngsters

    Another potential wetland colonist in the UK is Glossy Ibis.  At Frampton Marsh in Lincolnshire, the inexperienced male of a pair of young ibises built a late nest, although unfortunately his companion was unimpressed with it. This is the first Glossy Ibis nest ever recorded in Britain. The nest was built in an area that we have created as part of the Environment Agency’s Regional Habitat Creation Programme, to help offset projected future losses of coastal grazing marsh as a result of climate change.

    Frampton Marsh, Ben Hall rspb-images.com

    Breeding waders

    Lowland wet grassland waders have had a good breeding season in general (high numbers and good productivity), undoubtedly due to hard work by our reserve staff, but also probably helped in part by it being a good vole year.  In the Netherlands, productivity of lowland wet grassland waders tends to be higher in years with good numbers of voles, presumably because predators focus their efforts on eating these instead of birds’ eggs and chicks.  At Otmoor in Oxfordshire, there were 96 pairs of Lapwings (the previous highest since we acquired the site was 82), 61 pairs of Redshank (previous highest of 54), and 14 pairs of Snipe (previous highest of 13). Numbers of breeding waders were also well up at Rainham Marshes in Essex, with Lapwings up from 27 pairs in 2013 to 38 in 2014, and Redshank increasing from 18 to 31 pairs over the same time period. These are also the highest breeding numbers of both species since we acquired the site.  

    Otmoor, Andy Hay rspb-images.com

    Importantly, Lapwings had a productive breeding season on RSPB reserves as a whole, with an average of 1.2 young fledged per pair at sites where we have installed anti-predator fencing. Lapwings are thought to need to fledged and average of between 0.6-0.8 young per pair to maintain a stable breeding population.

    The effects of landscape-scale re-wetting of degraded peatlands as Dove Stone in the Peak District during the last few years, are also becoming apparent.  In addition to providing carbon and water quality benefits, it has resulted in increases in breeding Dunlin (39 pairs this year compared to 15 in 2010), Golden Plover (92 pairs this year compared to 77 in 2010) and Curlew (42 pairs this year compared to 36 in 2010).

    Other news

    Bitterns had another fabulous year across RSPB reserves, witha total of 71 boomers on RSPB reserves. A highlight was a further increase in numbers of boomers at Ham Wall in Somerset up from an amazing 15 in 2013 to an even more amazing 20 this year (there were only 11 boomers in the whole of the UK in 1997!). Bearded Tits were also confirmed as breeding at Loch of Strathbeg in Aberdeenshire for the first time.

    Corncrake numbers also recovered following a widespread decline between 2012 and 2013. At the Nene Washes (where Corncrakes are being re-introduced), there was an estimated 22 calling male Corncrakes (with 17 on the RSPB reserveitself). Twenty-one of the birds at the Nene Washes have been caught and, of these, an impressive twelve were wild-bred birds. The remaining nine were zoo-bred birds released in 2013.  This is very encouraging, given the recent run of bad years, particularly following late spring flooding there in 2012.  There were just 6 calling males at the Nene Washes in 2012, and seven in 2013.

    Nene Washes, Andy Hay rspb-images.com

    Black Grouse also had a good year on RSPB reserves, with an impressive 55 lekking males at Geltsdale in Cumbria (up from 27 in 2013). Numbers of Red-necked Phalaropes also increased for a third year running on RSPB reserves, mainly due to a further increase on RSPB-managed mires on Fetlar, Shetland to 20 males in 2014. We also now have a better idea of where our phalaropes winter, thanks to the amazing results from a geolocator fitted to one of them (see here).

    At Coquet Island in Northumberland (which I watch very closely whenever I am staying at my family's hut), there was an increase in number of breeding Roseate Terns from 78 pairs in 2013 to 93 pairs this year. Coquet Island supports virtually the entire UK breeding population of Roseate Terns. Little Terns also had a better breeding season on reserves in 2014, with total numbers up slightly. At Langtone Harbour in Hampshire, 36 pairs fledged 28 young following raising of their nesting islands using shingle over the last couple of winters, to reduce the risk of the nests of these and other seabirds being flooded outduring storms.  Little Terns are likely to become increasingly vulnerable to the combined effects of rising sea levels, increased coastal erosion, and pressure from human disturbance and generalist predators.

    While we need to wait for the State of UK Birds report to get a fuller picture of this year's breeding season, it is heartening that our reserves have performed well.  And we have our magnificent reserves teams and their army of volunteers to thank for that.

    Assuming that you managed to pop into at least one RSPB reserve in 2014, what was your personal highlight?

    It would be great to hear your views.