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
  • Brexit: early thoughts on priorities for nature

    I spent a cathartic weekend at the fascinating Knepp Estate exploring its re-wilding project.  Following the referendum, time spent looking for turtle doves, purple emperor chrysalis’ and amphibious bistort was a great way to clear the head.

    As politicians across the UK decide their next steps, the news has been dominated by when and what sort of Brexit deal will be struck and what it might mean for all of us.  At the RSPB, we have been thinking through what it might mean for nature.

    We are not coming at this cold.  The IEEP report published in March outlined the implications for environmental law and for sectoral policies such as agriculture and fisheries.  What’s more, in the run up to the vote, various politicians from the ‘Leave’ campaign, including George Eustice MP, made statements about how they would rise to meet the environmental challenges if we left the EU.

    But, talk during the campaign needs to be translated into action in government.  And, here uncertainty remains as it will be for the next Prime Minister to decide what future relationship the UK wants with Europe (although the First Minister in Scotland may also have views on this).  

    Given that most of our environmental laws have over the past forty years evolved in parallel with the European Union and the dominant land and sea uses have been governed by common agriculture and fisheries policies, the final arrangements could have major implications on nature conservation across the UK.  Indeed, our own conclusion before the referendum was that, on balance, it was safer for nature for the UK to remain a member of the EU.

    Now the UK has voted to leave the EU we will continue to seek action for nature both internationally and at home.  As my boss, Mike Clarke, wrote in his response to the referendum on Friday, we are a nation (or a set of four nations) that love nature.  The public will expect high standards of nature protection and indeed the Conservative Party won a general election with a manifesto commitment to restore UK biodiversity in 25 years.

    So, working alongside our eclectic and active NGO community, our priorities in this period will be to:

    • Ensure existing levels of protection are maintained or ideally bolstered
    • Guard against intensification of land and sea use by adopting smart new agriculture and fisheries policies
    • Expect international leadership from the UK Government for action to halt biodiversity loss and tackle climate change

    Below, I offer some early thoughts on what this means in practice.  

    1. Ensuring existing levels of protection are maintained or ideally bolstered

    View of RSPB Cliffe Marshes at dusk (David Broadbent, rspb-images.com)

    Whatever the outcome of the negotiations that will follow the UK’s referendum on membership of the EU, existing international and national commitments to species and sites remain (through the Convention on Biological Diversity's Aichi targets and other agreements such as the Ramsar, Bonn and Bern Conventions). 

    A coherent network of well managed protected areas on land and at sea, combined with targeted and effective conservation measures in the land/seascape and species protection legislation, is fundamental to our efforts to maintain or restore wildlife populations.  It is therefore vital that any emerging legal protection for our most special places for wildlife across the UK is consistent with international best practice, and at least equivalent to that currently provided by the EU Nature Directives (which have also successfully improved the populations of threatened species).  

    Without the protection that the Nature Directives currently provide, we would lose the legal framework that guarantees no net loss of the most important places for wildlife, and the protection afforded to c80% of the UK's best sites for wildlife would be diminished.

    This is why we will argue to retain the Habitat Regulations for England and Wales and their equivalents in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

    2. Guard against intensification of land and sea use by adopting smart new policies for agriculture...

     

    Harvest mouse on wheat (Ben Andrew, rspb-images.com)

    The RSPB has spent many years campaigning to reform the Common Agriculture Policy.  Agriculture has been a major driver of wildlife declines and we have long argued that the CAP could do more to support wildlife-friendly farming.  So, we believe that our withdrawal from the EU should trigger a public debate about what farming can deliver for society. What is clear is that some public investment will continue to be needed if we are to secure a food and farming sector across the UK that is good for people, for wildlife and is fair to farmers.

    This investment should reward the many vital public services that agriculture can provide (such as clean water and an attractive countryside rich in wildlife), and build on the great work many farmers are already doing through rural development programmes.  It should help shape more sustainable food and farming businesses by encouraging farming practices that benefit nature and help tackle climate change.

    Clearly times are tough for some farmers. We need a new policy framework which works much harder to improve the return they receive from the market and increases transparency about where money goes in the supply chain. This will help ensure farmers are profitable whilst allowing them to deliver for nature in addition to food and other services. The RSPB will be looking to engage the public to support these changes and make nature/environmentally friendly choices in the way people eat and live.

    So, what might a future policy look like in practice?  Without diving into too much detail, I think we should be looking for...

    ...a shift away from a focus on subsidies with few strings attached, towards a strategic policy framework that supports progressive, innovative farmers, providing them with the certainty to engage in more sustainable production

    ...public money being focused on the environmental challenges that farmers are uniquely placed to meet, such as the conservation of species, restoration of habitats and natural flood risk management. This should build on the progress already made through agri-environment schemes and rural development programmes across the UK

    ...a transition period toward new arrangements that allows time for farmers and land managers to adapt, and for new policies to be piloted. This is particularly important for the most economically vulnerable farmers, such as those in our extensive livestock sector, who are often farming in marginal, but high nature value areas

    There needs to be a new sense of direction in food and farming policy focusing on combined solutions to different but connected problems. We need to make sure that it allows farmers the space to make a meaningful contribution toward restoring wildlife and improving the overall sustainability of the sector. With this in mind, in 2015 we, alongside our partners in Wildlife and Countryside Link in England, set out our vision for Farming Fit for the Future, and we will continue to work with others to widen the debate about agriculture policy, and make the case that this issue is of central importance to people’s lives, and their wellbeing. 

    ...and fisheries

    The Common Fisheries Policy of 2013 didn’t give us everything we wanted but, with the UK acting as the leading advocate for change, it delivered a lot for the marine environment (including fish which people often forget are also part of biodiveristy). Reforms included...

    ...unprecedentedly strong compliance of fishing to environmental legislation (including an ecosystem approach to fisheries management)

    ...an ambitious target to fish all stocks at sustainable levels

    ...a Landing Obligation (the so-called ‘discard ban’) – formerly discarded fish must now be landed and be counted against quota

    ...'regionalisation' which essentially means devolving decision-making to the Member States around a given sea basin (e.g. North Sea) to get away from Brussels micro-management/command and control. 

    The UK particularly championed reduction of seabird bycatch and is developing a UK Seabird Plan of Action. So our Brexit ask for fisheries is simple: we want Defra to commit to developing a national fishing policy with measures equivalent to these in the reformed CFP.

    3. International leadership from the UK Government for action to halt biodiversity loss and tackle climate change


    As Mike Clarke wrote on Friday, Brexit will not dent the RSPB ambtion to cooperate with our BirdLife International partners to address trans-national challenges such as protecting our migrating birds and tackling climate change. Equally, we shall expect the same from the UK Government.  As it has done for decades, we need the UK to continue to look beyond its own borders and use its voice for action on global priorities such as halting the loss of tropical forests.  

    My closing thought is this - in this time of huge flux, opportunities as well as threats will emerge.  In the short term, things will continue until they are actively changed.  But we shall monitor political developments carefully and will be prepared to work tirelessly (and innovatively) with our supporters and partners to ensure our politicians secure a Brexit deal that works for nature.

  • A reaction from the RSPB's Chief Executive, Dr Mike Clarke, to the result of the referendum on the UK membership of the European Union

    The UK has voted to leave the European Union.

    The RSPB has always believed that, because nature transcends national boundaries, it needs cross-border co-operation to protect it and a common set of international standards that enable it to thrive.

    That is why, now the UK has decided to leave the EU, the RSPB believes the UK must continue to act internationally, and look to forge comprehensive international agreements for nature conservation and the environment.

    But we also need action at home.  

    David Tipling's fabulous image of two turtle doves - our fast declining migratory bird

    There are millions of people in the UK who love nature – just think about the viewing figures of BBC Springwatch. We need clean air and water, and we want an attractive countryside rich in wildlife.

    It is essential that we do not lose the current, hard won, level of legal protection. Given the current state of nature, we should be looking to improve the implementation of existing legal protection and, where necessary, to increase it.

    It will now be down to the governments in Westminster, Edinburgh, Belfast and Cardiff to make this happen.

    As the new constitutional settlement is negotiated over the coming months (and years?), the RSPB will continue to be a voice for nature, raising the importance of environmental issues that has an impact on people, wildlife and the economy. We will provide a constructive challenge to all governments across the UK where necessary, and give credit where it is due; just as we always have done.   

    And, of course, trans-national challenges such as protecting our migrating birds, tackling climate change remain, which is why we shall work internationally, as we have done so for over a hundred years, and will continue to act across Europe with our Birdlife International partners to tackle the many challenges facing nature.

    In short, we shall continue to do whatever nature needs.

    Finally, I hope that all those that have invested so much in this campaign take time to recover.  We need our leaders to be at their best as they make sense of this result and to rise to meet the challenges we and nature face.  Given that contact with nature is good for the soul, I recommend a visit to a local nature reserve this weekend. 

    Ben Hall's image of RSPB Arne at dawn (rspb-images.com)

  • An update on the review of the EU Nature Directives

    As we enter the final week of the EU Referendum campaign, I thought I would offer a brief update on the future of the the Birds and Habitats Directives (the Nature Directives).

    In May, I reported here that the overdue findings of the Fitness Check of the EU Nature Directives had still not been published.  Since then there have been further developments, but still not sign of a resolution. Regular readers will know that the Fitness Check is intended to be an evidenced-based review of whether the Nature Directives are fit for purpose, although politics has played a significant part from the off.  

    That said, I remain confident, not complacent, that the Directives will remain in place. More than half a million people have used their voices to defend the directives, and both the European Parliament and the Environment Council (EU Ministers of Environment) have pledged their support.

    This latter group is meeting today are meeting, and although the Fitness Check is not on the agenda, given their support we expect several Ministers to raise this topic. Pictured here showing their support for the Directives outside the Luxembourg Council buildings are Carole Dieschbourg, Minister of Environment for Luxembourg, and Rita Schwarzelühr-Sutter, Parliamentary State Secretary to the Federal Minister for the Environment, Nature Conservation, Building and Nuclear Safety for Germany.

    The results of the Fitness Check were originally scheduled for publication in the first quarter of 2016. By January 2016 this was looking ambitious, and so the Commission promised a report in time for discussion during the Netherlands presidency of the EU. The EU presidency is held in turn by all Member States for 6 months on a rolling basis.

    Regular readers will remember that the Netherlands government have paid very close attention to the Fitness Check. The Saving Special Places blog reports here on a recent visit by Dutch parliamentarians to RSPB’s Wallasea Island Wild Coast project to find out more about how the UK implements the Nature Directives, with a view to informing implementation in the Netherlands.

    Given this level of interest, it was hardly surprising when the Netherlands scheduled a major conference on the Nature Directives, titled “Future Proof Nature” to discuss the eagerly anticipated results of the Fitness Check. The conference was scheduled for next week, and looked set to bring together civil society, government ministers, officials from the Commission and Member States, and businesses to discuss the results, and what should happen next. I say was, because just last week the Netherlands Government decided to cancel the conference.

    The Commission’s promise to publish the findings in time for the conference has not been fulfilled. Last week EurActiv, an online news service on EU affairs, reported here on the cancellation of the conference and the delayed publication of the results. Of course, the delay might be justified if work was ongoing on the final report, but Euractiv had secured a leak of a draft of the Commission’s report, dated 4th January 2016, suggesting the results could have been published in time for the Netherlands conference.

    You can read the draft report here, if you have the time and inclination to wade through 584 pages of detailed evidence and analysis, but to spare you this, let me summarise; the Nature Directives are fit for purpose. The findings are unequivocal, “The majority of the evidence gathered across the five evaluation criteria shows that the legislation itself is appropriately designed and that, over time, implementation has improved, bringing important outcomes and impacts”.

    This is welcome news, but of course these findings have not yet been published, the Commission has not yet come up with a better implementation plan, and nature is still in trouble. Birds, habitats, wildlife, all are desperately in need of the conservation measures set out in the Nature Directives, but not yet fully delivered by Member State governments across the EU28. Meanwhile President Juncker’s office is delaying progress for no apparent reason.

    The day after the EurActiv article appeared, the European Commission Vice-President Frans Timmermans attended the European Parliament’s Environment Committee to answer questions from MEPs. Frans Timmermans found himself in the unenviable position of defending an indefensible decision that was not his own. In relation to the findings of the Fitness Check and the future of the Nature Directives he clearly stated, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, but many of the MEPs were not fully convinced, describing the delays as “unacceptable”, and pressing the Vice-President to commit to a publication date.

    During Frans Timmermans’ excoriating hearing in the European Parliament, one MEP, Danish Green Margrete Auken, gave him the benefit of the doubt, praising his acknowledgement that if the Nature Directives are working they should not be revised, and acclaiming, “there is more happiness in heaven over one sinner that repents, than over ninety-nine just persons”. Timmermans has seen the light, maybe it’s time that Commissioner President Jean-Claude Juncker opened his eyes to the evidence, and the 520,000 Europeans calling for something to be done for our beleaguered nature.

    Next week the European Commission returns to the Environment Committee for an “exchange of views with the Commission” on the follow-up to the European Parliament resolution on the mid-term review of the EU’s Biodiversity Strategy, which I commented on here. The Nature Directives are key to the delivery of several targets under the EU Biodiversity Strategy to 2020, and the longer uncertainty over their future is allowed to continue, and action to achieve full implementation is delayed, the bigger the task of bringing Europe’s wildlife back from the brink will be.

    Meanwhile a Freedom of Information request has been put submitted to the Commission by WWF for access to the final report of the Fitness Check consultants, on which the Commission’s report will be based. A response to this request is expected in the next weeks.

    We live in exciting times.