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
  • A thought on airports

    Understandably, there was extensive media coverage of the report led by the airport Commission led by Sir Howard Davies.  

    Those of you that are regular readers of RSPB blogs will know that we have two principal concerns about aviation expansion...

    ...the damage to sites of international wildlife importance and

    ...the increasing climate change threat of a spike in greenhouse gas emissions.

    We're thankful therefore that the Thames Estuary airport, which would have destroyed a huge swathe of bird-rich habitat in the Thames, remains buried by Sir Howard Davies in his commission report.

    But, like many environmental groups, we remain opposed to airport expansion on climate grounds.

    On Tuesday, the Climate Change Committee called for government to, "Publish an effective policy framework for aviation emissions" because current policies are not sufficient.

    Our conclusion is simple - effective controls on aviation emissions must come before capacity expansion for claims that we can have both to have any credence.

    I trust that the Government will consider carefully what both Committees have said before making its decision before the end of the year.

  • Why was the Birds Directive created? Guest blog from Alistair Gammell

    Today, I am delighted to welcome my former RSPB colleague,  Alistair Gammell. Alistair worked for the RSPB for three decades including as our first International Director.  Amongst his many achievements, he played a key role in shaping the EU Directives.  These critical laws that are now under threat.  In this guest blog, he outlines why the laws were created.

    Was the Birds Directive, and later the Habitats Directive adopted as some would have you believe because super-crazed Eurocrats couldn’t resist interfering with nature conservation policies that were clearly working well without their interference? Or was it because increasing bird shooting and trapping, combined with increasing habitat destruction, was unsustainable and posed an ever growing threat to Europe’s migrant birds, whose life-patterns know no boundaries?

    In the 1970s bird-killing in Europe wasn’t just a few people carrying out some occasional arcane traditional practice, but it was a sustained massacre in which many hundreds of millions of birds, common and rare, were being killed annually in Europe.

    To increase the numbers they killed, hunters were travelling to the best places for birds, and using the latest technology, such as repeating shotguns, mist nets, tape recordings of calls to lure in flocks. Indiscriminate means such as bird-lime and traps were commonplace, as was hunting in many areas in all seasons, including in spring, as birds struggled back to Europe to breed.

    At the same time, Europe’s landscapes were being transformed by increased urbanisation, more intensive farming, pollution, and the use of pesticides, so Europe’s birds had less and less suitable habitat available to breed.

    European citizens, recognising Europe’s birds were in trouble and that the threats to them were not only international and beyond the control of any single government, but in many cases were exacerbated by EU policies, demanded Europe-wide action to protect our natural heritage and to reduce the killing of birds to a sustainable level. Since then the threats from increasing urbanisation, intensive land use and bird hunting have not gone away, indeed they are more intense than ever. So the requirement for international action to protect birds remains and is just as relevant today as it was in the 1970s.

    The Directives were framed with reasonableness in mind. They do not make the law, but just set agreed minimum standards and then leave it to individual EU governments to implement these in the way they think best. The Directives require that the most threatened species be given special protection and the most important places in Europe for birds and other wildlife be given special protection. That seems important and sensible.But the special protection for species and places is not made absolute.

    National Governments can grant exceptions (called derogations) if they need to, but when doing so, they need to demonstrate they have looked at other solutions and show that these alternatives were not satisfactory.  

    Again this seems perfectly reasonable. Wouldn’t we really want people who were proposing to damage or destroy a national treasure – for that is what these rare birds or important places for wildlife are - to have thought twice and to show they have looked at alternatives and rejected these for rational reasons? And these EU policies have worked. Rare species are proven to have been better off because of the Birds Directive, and bird killing, though still unfortunately still too widespread, has declined.

    But of course some people are stopped from doing whatever they want - that is what laws do and we should be glad of it. Governments and developers actually have to show that alternative and less damaging solutions are not possible. Hunters cannot just kill protected species. Hurrah to that.

    Nothing has changed since the 1970s except that today Europe’s wildlife is even more threatened and needs the protection afforded by these directives even more than ever.

    With due deference to Franklin Roosevelt, I have unashamedly adapted one of his quotes which to me sum up why these Directives are needed and must remain strong.

    It is our European landscapes and nature, our European languages and European culture that make Europe different and our home. We should cherish its natural wonders, cherish the natural resources, cherish the history and romance as a sacred heritage, for our children and our children's children. Do not let selfish men or greedy interests skin our continent of its beauty, its riches or its romance.

    If you haven’t already you can act now to defend nature, by taking just a few minutes to respond to the EU consultation on the future of the Nature Directives. Over 283,000 people already have – making this the biggest ever response to an EU consultation! Join this movement and let EU leaders know that you won't tolerate of weakening of our most important laws for wildlife.

  • Climate change: mitigate, adapt or suffer - reaction to the latest report from the Climate Change Committee

    A fortnight ago I was one of 9,000 people at Westminster talking to my MP about climate change.  

    So today’s report from the Government’s Climate Change Committee is particularly timely. It reminds us quite how many of the things we love could be put at risk by climate change and outlines what action government needs to take.

    It's warning that storms and high seas will put 40,000 more homes at risk of flooding, and that many thousands of people could be hospitalised because of over-heating, is another urgent call to action.

    As a charity, our primary focus is on nature.  So, we pay attention to see how vulnerable England’s nature is to climate change. The report makes it very clear that far too many of our most important wildlife populations and natural places are in poor condition, even at risk from disappearing – and it highlights our various wetlands, including peatbogs, and farmland wildlife that are those most in need of action.

    Restoring our uplands: good for carbon, good for water and good for wildlife (Ben Hall, RSPB-images.com)

    It’s good to see recognition of Biodiversity 2020, the Government’s plan to restore nature in England, and the need for concerted drive and resources to deliver its commitments to the Convention on Biological Diversity. Yet the reports raises serious questions about the progress we’re making on this, noting the serious lack of actual delivery towards the targets of three of the four Outcomes of the strategy.

    However, I think the report falls a little short of what’s required in the longer term. Yes, we need to stop the rot of our wildlife and thereby build resilience against climate change, yet we also need to plan ahead and help wildlife to adapt to climate change. We are already seeing the movement north of the natural ranges of a wide variety of animals and plants – at an average of around 17 kilometres a decade, which works out at a rather startling five metres every day. As I wrote recently (see here), we need to plan for this, to make sure wildlife finds suitable habitat in the new places where it will find favourable climate.

    The report recognises the contribution Countryside Stewardship, the new agri-environment scheme, could make to deliver coherent ecological networks help our wildlife move around the countryside. Yet we need a wider strategic approach to help wildlife cope with climate change and I hope we can build on this, in the development of the Government’s promised 25 year plan for biodiversity.

    I’ve written before (see here) about the damage being done to our uplands. So it’s good to see the Adaptation Sub-Committee recommend that Natural England takes action towards the widespread restoration of upland peat habitats, and investigate the knotty issue of burning in the uplands. I’ll have more to say on this a few days time. Other types of wetlands too are vulnerable to climate change. The ASC picks up that we are not on course for no net loss of coastal habitat, with losses from sea level rise and coastal squeeze, and the Environment Agency is charged to report on progress towards this for the next statutory report in 2017. By then we’ll have Wallasea Island established as a coastal wetland, another of the RSPB’s contributions to restoring coastal habitat alongside other benefits to people, in this case flood protection and recreation.

    So for wildlife, just as for flood protection and over-heating, the key message from the report is that we should fix the roof while the sun is shining – otherwise, the most vulnerable will suffer.

    We at the RSPB – and many of our partners – are already working on many of the answers.  Our work with United Utilities (here) shows how we can restore upland management to benefit water water quality, restore peatlands and help wildlife populations; working with the Enviornment Agency at Medmerry (here) on the south coast, we have shown how a new coastal defence scheme can also provide new intertidal habitat for wildlife; at Hope Farm (here) we continue to show that it is possible farm profitably while restoring populations of farmland birds and in Europe, we are working with electricity grid operators to show how to upgrade energy infrastructure without needless harm to the environment (see here).  Just as importantly, we are campaigning to defend the EU Nature Directives (see here) that allow wildlife to move with a changing climate - and more than a quarter of a million people have now supported this campaign.

    All of these are needed to make England’s wildlife and people resilient to climate change.  It’s clear from the report that sensible planning and investment now can protect us from the worst of climate change, but that we can’t wait any longer.   Now’s the time to get started.

    I congratulate all those involved in producing the report and I commend it to you...