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
  • Show the love this Valentine's Day

    In the run  up to Valentine's Day, the RSPB has once again joined forces with WWF, Oxfam, the National Trust, the Women’s Institute and many other partners from The Climate Coalition to encourage people to think differently about climate change and to inspire them to act.  We are asking people to‪ Show the Love by watching and sharing a new 5 minute film featuring a letter written by Michael Morpurgo and starring Jeremy Irons and Maxine Peake (see below).  

    As with last year's film (here), we want to challenge people to think about how climate change will affect the things that we love the most - and for many that will include wildlife.

    The 70% decline in the UK kittiwake population has been linked to climate change (Andy Hay, rspb-images.com)

    Our report on the Nature of Climate Change highlighted the growing body of scientific evidence on the effects climate change is already having on Europe's wildlife.  The case for action will only become more compelling as the IPCC impacts report said in 2014 "It is well-established that the geographical extent of the damage or loss, and the number of systems affected, will increase with the magnitude and rate of climate change".

    The twin global challenges of biodiversity loss and climate change require systemic changes to our economy.  This means decoupling growth in our prosperity from environmental harm and doing more to reflect the value of nature in decision-making.  

    Even though we have made progress, most recently with the Paris climate deal struck last year, there is no doubt that these are life-long challenges.  Yet, dealing with them is the only way that we can learn to live in harmony with nature - the vision that is captured by the UN Convention on Biological Diversity.

    While we will continue to make a difference through our own practical conservation work, we also want to find new ways to inspire people to change their own behaviour, while also influencing governments and business to make it easier for more people to do the right thing.

    Last weekend more than half a million people spent an hour watching birds in their garden and contributing data to the world's largest wildlife survey - Big Garden Birdwatch.  This week, I hope that people watch the video about climate change and sign up to show their love for the things affected by climate change.  

    Most importantly, I hope that these activities inspire people to act: to help give nature a home and to tackle climate change.  You can find out more about the RSPB's work on climate change here.

    Enjoy the film.


  • European Parliament opposes revision of Nature Directives

    This morning, MEPs in the European Parliament adopted (with an overwhelming majority) a report that reinforces the importance of the EU Nature Directives in halting biodiversity loss.

    Today’s news follows a series of announcements which suggest that any political appetite to weaken the directives has reduced but alas not entirely disappeared. 


    © European Union 2015 - European Parliament

    In October last year, the European Commission acknowledged that the EU’s 2020 biodiversity targets would be missed unless “implementation [of the EU Nature Directives] and enforcement efforts become considerably bolder and more ambitious”. 

    This message echoed that sent by half a million people who, last summer, shared their views through the Fitness Check consultation regarding the Directives.

    In November (see here), the draft Fitness Check report concluded that the Nature Directives are fit for purpose, and any problems with them are a consequence of poor implementation and enforcement.  They make a ‘major contribution to the EU’s biodiversity target’, but complementary action – especially in key policy areas such as agriculture – is essential to halt the loss of biodiversity.

    In December (see here), Environment Ministers from 28 Member States, including our own Minister, Rory Stewart, said they wanted to focus their efforts on improving implementation of the Directives to give us a chance of halting the loss of biodiversity.

    We now have a situation where the evidence says the Directives are fit for purpose, where elected politicians in both the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament support them and where civil society and many businesses want the spotlight to move to implementation and effective reform of Common Agriculture Policy – seen as a driver of loss. 

    Yet, in a speech yesterday, Environment Commissioner Karmenu Vella seemed reluctant to accept that this consensus view had emerged and suggested legal reform was still possible.  Clearly, some vested interests are working very hard behind the scenes for EU nature protection to be weakened.

    For now, can I take this opportunity to thank all of you that have support our campaign to date.  While today’s vote is the latest example of the impact we have had, it is clear that the campaign to defend the laws that defend our nature has not yet been won.

    Please do keep an eye on the Defend Nature pages of our website for further opportunities to get involved.  

  • A thought for World Wetlands Day

    Walking through Westminster last week, I saw a large display of wellington boots.  It had been put together by Greenpeace showcasing personal testimonies from flood-hit communities and was accompanied by a call for more government action to protect people from flooding.

    Admiring the installation, my eyes were drawn to a card about Hebden Bridge - a community that has suffered from flooding in recent years and is in the foothills of the intensively managed Walshaw Moor Estate.  

    This is the same Estate that is the subject of a complaint made by the RSPB to the European Commission over the management agreement that was struck between Natural England and the Estate in 2012 (which I first aired here).  We have made the case that burning is inconsistent with obligations under the EU Habitats and Species Directive to restore peatlands (for example see here).

    This case is still being investigated by the European Commission but there is strong evidence that restoring internationally important peatlands would not only help wildlife but also safeguard nature's free services that well-managed peatlands provide - such as locking up carbon, providing clear drinking water, and keeping water for longer on the hill to prevent downstream flooding. Research by Leeds University has revealed that just a 10% increase in Sphagnum moss cover in buffer strips next to water courses can reduce peak flows by over 7% and also delay the time it takes for streams to reach peak flow.  Sphagnum is an important peat-forming species and it is known (here) that changes in the hydrological properties of the peat after fire make the peat less conducive to Sphagnum moss growth.

    It is notoriously difficult to scale up these trials to see how much benefit you would achieve across a catchment but what is clear is that restoring wetlands would benefit wildlife, water company customers (see here) and could make a significant contribution to alleviating downstream flood risk.

    The good news is that there seems to be a growing recognition of the role of land management in flood risk management.  Last week, the terms of reference for the Westminster Government’s National Flood Resilience Review was published.  In the press release, it said that the Review (to be chaired by Cabinet Secretary, Oliver Letwin) "will align closely with Defra’s work on integrated catchment-level management of the water cycle in the government’s 25 year Environment Plan".  We'll engage with this review as well as participating in the Cumbrian Floods Partnership.  This will be an opportunity to work with others to demonstrate the role that catchment management must play in protecting communities at risk of flooding, including the contribution that our own land management can make at Haweswater and Geltsdale

    Haweswater by Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)

    Our experience of natural flood management is not, however, restricted to the uplands.  I've written (here) about how land managed for nature helped protect parts of the Suffolk coast in the 2013 tidal surge but we also manage several floodplain washlands in partnership with the Environment Agency from the Aire and Dearne valleys in Yorkshire to parts of the Ouse and Nene Washes in Cambridgeshire. These sites are designed so that in normal conditions they are managed as wetland nature reserves, providing homes for wildlife and a recreational resource for people but in times of exceptionally heavy rainfall they take in water from the surrounding river network, flooding the sites, often under several metres of water but hopefully keeping that water out of towns and villages downstream. 

    These sites were designed to reduce the risk of damaging flooding but they have become fantastic places for wildlife. In fact, they have become so important that many of them, like the blanket bogs of the Pennines, have been designated under the European Nature Directives as some of our most important places for nature. 

    Today, the European parliament will be voting on a mid-term review of the EU’s Biodiversity Strategy. There is lots to recommend in the report, among which a request for EU leaders to listen to the half a million citizens calling for the laws that defend nature to be protected and better implemented.

    So, I hope that politicians note that today is World Wetlands Day* and mark it by remembering the incredible value that wetlands offer to people and the importance of the laws that protect them.  

    * World Wetlands Day has taken place annually on 2 February since 1997.  It marks the date of the signing of the first multilateral international conservation convention in the Iranian city of Ramsar on the shores of the Caspian Sea in 1971. There are now 169 signatories from across the world. The Ramsar Convention was designed to address the alarming rate at which wetlands were being lost across the world.  Yet, from the outset, it was acknowledged that loss of wetlands was just as likely to be damaging to a nation’s economy and culture as to its wildlife.