Martin Harper's blog

Our work

Our work
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
  • One big, birding family saving species and special places

    My first week back after an excellent holiday ended with a visit to Birdfair on Friday.  It was a great to bump in to so many friends and there was a lovely, warm atmosphere.  It felt like one, big birding family epitomised by over 20 Birdlife International Partners from five continents represented at the RSPB reception hosted by my boss, Mike Clarke.  

    Earlier that day, we (and I mean 'we' given that the RSPB is the UK Partner of Birdlife) had launched a new report looking at the scale of illegal killing of wild birds across the Mediterranean.  It is staggering to think that at least 25 million birds are being poisoned, trapped or shot illegally every year.  We don't yet know the conservation implications of of this activity, but given the many other pressures on wildlife it is clear that the illegal killing will only compound existing threats such as habitat destruction and pollution.

    Yet, despite the appalling figures, it was inspiring to hear from the heads of the Lebanese and Egyptian partners outlining the efforts they are making to crack down on illegal killing.   Birdlife partners across the region are working with police, government authorities and local people to end this crime.  And this is the approach we adopt in the UK and RSPB investigation staff were busy all weekend at Birdfair talking to people concerned about the ongoing illegal killing of birds of prey in this country.

    So many of the problems that wildlife face are trans-national - climate change being the most obvious.  And, saving migratory species such as Turtle Dove, Cuckoo, Nightingale and Wood Warbler is only possible through collaboration across borders. This is why Birdlife is so important.  We can only save nature by acting together as was demonstrated this summer when, in just ten weeks, more than 520,000 European citizens called on the European Commission to defend the EU Nature Directives.

    Returning to the office after a holiday can sometimes be challenging especially when you hear news of another Hen Harrier shot and that SSSIs are not safe from fracking (of the 27 blocks of land that will be formally offered to fracking companies for exploration, they included 53 SSSIs and three RSPB nature reserves - Dearne Valley, Fairburn Ings and Langford Lowfields, see here).    But by the end of the week, as well as being buoyed by Birdfair and Birdlife exploits, I'd heard loads of good news stories coming in from across the RSPB (Cranes breeding on the Somerset Levels for the first time in 400 years, Brown Hares recovering at Havergate and our new involvement in Sherwood Forest).  

    It's wrong to stay gloomy for long.

    In his very good opening speech to Birdfair, Simon Bentley (Director of Leicestershire and Rutland Wildlife Trust) quoted Simon Barnes who suggested there was a third way between pessimism and optimism where we strive to to save as many glorious species and places as possible while we still can.  

    I like that sentiment - it seems to just about sum up the work of Birdlife International and the whole nature conservation family.  

    And it also allows me to show a gratuitous holiday picture of Coquet Island - another glorious place full of glorious seabirds where our warden, Paul Morrison, has led our conservation efforts for a quarter of a century.  He and his team have a lot to be proud about: Coquet is now home to a record breaking 100 pairs of Roseate Terns alongside 35,000 other nesting seabirds.  Thanks to Paul,  I was able to step foot on the island after twenty years staring at it from my hut on the Northumberland coast.  It was an absolute privilege to experience first hand the cacophony and smell of the UK's Roseate stronghold.  I was also very happy to get back onto the mainland (but that's another story)

    So, if you are part of this great big, birding family, my post holiday message is simple - do what you can in pursuit of Simon Barnes' third way.

  • Showcasing our reserves part two - guest post from Patrick Cashman

    In the second post showcasing our reserves, Patrick Cashman talks about how nature can recover, given a helping hand...

    Collectively, RSPB nature reserves make a significant contribution to preserving some of the UK’s best natural sites, habitats and landscapes. 

    However, as seminal documents like the State of Nature report remind us, nature is in deep trouble and much of our natural heritage has been worn away, rather like a threadbare carpet. In some areas you can, thankfully, still determine the pattern, so protecting and enhancing what remains is a clear priority.

    Putting it back

    But in areas where the pattern has worn away completely, you have to start putting it back. When recreating lost landscapes, this means managing the land not for what you have today, but what you’d like tomorrow. In other words you have to start again.

    In 2005, the RSPB bought an arable farm at Winterbourne Downs, in Wiltshire, on which to recreate chalk grassland. Where there was once a blanket of cereal crops, we wanted to see a carpet of wild flowers.

    The reserve lies between Porton Down and Salisbury Plain, the largest remaining expanses of chalk grassland in the UK, and it is intended to be a stepping stone to enable species to move through the landscape.

    We’ve harvested seed from Salisbury Plain and other chalk grassland sites to convert cereal fields into chalk grassland. It’s worked really well and there are now beautiful meadows, buzzing with insects and gloriously colourful with flowers.

    The flatness of the heavily-tilled former arable fields meant that the micro-climatic conditions across the site were too similar, inhibiting variety.

    Adonis blue. Image by Anne Sorbes (

    For example, butterflies can be very sensitive to small changes in temperature so creating varied conditions would give the reserve lots of options for butterflies throughout the day and the season. Creating variety is also one of the ways we can help make sites resilient to climate change.

    To solve this problem we came up with the idea of big butterfly banks. Working with Butterfly Conservation we designed and built two large curved banks, formed from the underlying chalk, snaking across the site, providing areas which would warm up throughout day.

    A blizzard of butterflies

    The bare chalk on the banks has also made great conditions for specialist chalk-grassland plants. You can read more about how the banks work in our Winterbourne Downs showcase.

    It really came home to me that the banks were working when we were looking at them on the hottest day of the year so far. The main insect activity had moved to the cooler shadier area, the opposite of what I see on a typical British summer day!

    It’s been a good year for butterflies at Winterbourne Downs, especially small tortoiseshells and the chequerboard marbled whites.

    The most notable sight has been the blizzard of hundreds of small blue butterflies on the wing, a target chalk grassland specialist and Britain’s smallest resident butterfly, with some now over two kilometres away from their original colony and many using the new big banks.

    On one of our “Bug hunt and meadow safari” public events we discovered an even more significant species: a six-belted clearwing. This harmless and nationally-scarce moth, with its ‘clear’ wings, mimics a bee.

    Orchids have really benefited from our management and several varieties have been increasing in number and spreading across the reserve.

    This year we were really pleased to find 70 pyramidal orchids and six fragrant orchids on areas of relict grassland, and green-winged and common-spotted orchids on fields that were under cultivation just a few years ago.

    Finally, we manage Winterbourne Downs for the stone-curlew as well as chalk grassland habitat. Since we have been managing the reserve, stone-curlew numbers have increased from zero and we now have five pairs regularly nesting.

    Nature has amazing powers of recovery when you give it a helping hand.

  • Showcasing our reserves - guest post from Grahame Madge

    Today we have a guest post from Grahame Madge. Grahame tells us about how it's not just birds that benefit on RSPB nature reserves.

    Visit any of our nature reserves  and one of the first things that we hope you notice is the teeming birdlife.

    From the chattering songs of reed and sedge warblers at Marazion Marsh to the mournful wailing of singing red-throated divers on Fetlar, our 214 reserves span the UK from Cornwall to Shetland.

    But the next time you visit an RSPB reserve try to think beyond the birds.

    We do. In fact, it’s a startling statistic that RSPB nature reserves are important for many other species too: thousands of them.

    In fact 97 per cent of species recorded on our reserves aren’t birds. So far we’ve discovered 16,000 species, including a multitude of moths, mosses, mallows, molluscs and mammals, and we think there are many more still to be recorded.

    There is another species for which our reserves are important: man.

    Lots of them, in fact, every year. Many come to enjoy nature. Some also come to share the lessons we learn from managing land on an estate which extends to around four times the size of the Isle of Wight.

    We have developed a large amount of expertise of managing specific habitats and the Society has a national responsibility for some habitats. For example have 13 per cent of the UK’s coastal shingle, more than one sixth of all of the UK’s reedbeds and more than one fifth of all the UK’s native pine woodland – beloved of red squirrels, capercaillie and Scottish crossbills.

    Water vole. Image by Ben Andrew (

    We carry out a lot of innovative habitat restoration and vital management, and sharing this best practise is a big part of what we do.

    With this in mind we have produced a showcase of examples of good management from managing land for butterflies at Winterbourne in Wiltshire, to how we bring nature closer for visitors to Rainham Marshes in the Thames Gateway.

    We also pioneer innovative habitat restoration techniques that provide both good wildlife habitat together with additional benefits, known in the trade as ecosystem services: the much-celebrated win-win that you hear a lot about in conservation.

    At Dovestone in the Peak District , and Medmerry, in Sussex , we are working at an ever-increasing scale, and in partnership with a wide range of other organisations. Much of the innovative thinking on our reserves involves taking into account the projected impacts of climate change in our habitat restoration and management.

    Climate change is a huge threat to nature and mankind alike, but by managing land with climate change in mind, it’s possible to roll with the punch and help nature and people.

    At Dovestone, in partnership with United Utilities, we’re working to re-establish degraded blanket peat bog – an internationally important habitat that also helps to rewet upland landscapes, reduce carbon losses and protect water supplies.

    Along the Channel Coast at Medmerry, in a project led by the Environment Agency, we have set back sea defences, lowering costs of managing flood risk, while creating an ideal habitat for a range of species, even including birds.