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
  • Why the RSPB is withdrawing support for the Hen Harrier Action Plan

    The voluntary approach of the Hen Harrier Action Plan has failed, leaving licensing as the only viable option.

    I’m generally very patient.  My natural preference is to build partnerships and work to make positive change from the inside with those who want to abide by the law and deliver progress.

    However, sometimes that approach simply doesn’t work and there can be no clearer example of that right now than hen harriers, where illegal killing of this rare bird remains its most significant threat.

    The RSPB played a full part in the production of Defra’s Hen Harrier Action Plan and despite disagreeing with certain points (notably brood management), welcomed its publication earlier this year. However, at the time, I noted the need for immediate progress to help build trust in the approach.

    Unfortunately this has not happened.  

    Image courtesy of Shay Connolly

    In 2015, we were all extremely frustrated by there being just six successful hen harrier nests from 12 attempts in England.  2016 is on course to be much worse, with only three nests at the time of writing, none of which are on grouse moors.   

    Some will argue that the weather or vole population is to blame, however, early returns from the national hen harrier survey suggest numbers away from intensively managed grouse moors in north and west Scotland have done ok. We remain convinced that the primary reason for the hen harrier‘s continuing scarcity remains illegal killing.  

    Simply put, hen harriers (and other birds of prey) are illegally killed on some estates because they eat grouse. Crimes are committed to increase the number of grouse that can be shot. This year, there have been a series of depressingly predictable incidents in England and Scotland, the disappearance of the hen harriers ‘Chance’ and ‘Highlander’, the use of pole traps and the hen harrier decoy in the Peak District. And as well as hen harriers, it has also been a really bad year for red kites in North and West Yorkshire with several suspicious deaths.  In addition, there are more cases working their way through the legal system.

    All of this adds up to a picture which shows that the commitments made in the Hen Harrier Action Plan are not being delivered. People are still breaking the law and not enough is being done within the grouse shooting community to effect change.

    Some will argue that we should be more patient as behavioural change takes time.  But the hen harrier does not have time on its side and the longer hen harriers remain on the brink, the greater public antipathy towards intensive grouse shooting will become.

    Hen harriers and other birds of prey in our uplands will not recover without a completely different approach.  

    We have therefore decided to withdraw our support from Defra’s Hen Harrier Action Plan.

    We have come to this conclusion because we believe that reform to protect the hen harrier will only come through licensing of driven grouse shooting where, for example, crimes committed on estates managed for shooting should result in the withdrawal of their right to operate.  

    A licensing system isn’t about tarring everyone with the same brush, or blaming a whole community for the actions of the few.  Quite the opposite: it is effectively a targeted ban that will stamp out illegal activity and drive up the environmental standards of shooting.

    Law abiding estates have nothing to fear from this system and, indeed, I believe that it is in their own interests to champion such an approach.  We believe that this is the only way to deliver a significant shift in attitudes and potentially secure a future for their sport. Licensing systems appear to work well in most other European countries, so why not here as well?

    We fully support the current petition in Scotland and we would like to reinvigorate the call for Defra to introduce licensing in England too.

    Of course, we will continue to work on the ground with our partners, especially raptor workers (who monitor and protect birds of prey), landowners who wish to see a progressive future, local people and the police to provide the most effective possible year round protection.

    My preference is always for the partnership approach, but partnership requires action from both sides. In this case, that has failed. When shooting organisations are either unable or unwilling to lead the necessary change to rein in illegal activity, then reform must be delivered from outside. That is what we will now seek to do though promoting licensing.

    I fully expect our critics (such as the grouse industry funded You Forgot The Birds) to push out a wearyingly predictable series of attacks on the RSPB in coming weeks.  I can only imagine that this is designed to divert attention from criminal activity on some intensive grouse moors.  But this won't shake our resolve to seek change.

    An early opportunity to talk more about all of this will be at the Hen Harrier Day events. I’ll be at the Hen Harrier Day North East event at the RSPB's Saltholme reserve on Sunday 7 August, while my boss Mike Clarke will be at the event at Rainham Marshes on Saturday 6 August. Other RSPB representatives will be at various of the other events too. I hope to see many of you there and hopefully many more will be able to attend other events across the country.

    Together, we can and will save our hen harriers.

  • Vision for Nature: guest blog from Matt Williams, Associate Director of A Focus on Nature, the UK's youth nature network

    On the day that A Focus on Nature - the UK’s youth nature network. - launch their Vision for Nature, I am delighted to host a guest blog from Matt Williams, their Associate Director.  You can follow Matt on twitter  @mattadamw and find out more about him on

    In 2013 the RSPB was part of a partnership of organisations that launched the State of Nature report. This unprecedented piece of partnership work showed that 60% of species we know about have declined in recent decades in the UK.

    At the time, I had been involved with A Focus on Nature, the UK’s youth nature network, for about a year. I wrote then that as well as a State of Nature, we needed a Vision for Nature, to set out the path we wanted to be on and the future we wanted to see for the natural world. This vision, I argued, was especially needed for young people and future generations, and could even be put together by them. Indeed, I said that they of all people had the most legitimacy to write such a plan.

    Since then, A Focus on Nature has spent the last two years working to put together young people’s visions for the future of nature and wildlife in the UK. And today we launch our Vision for Nature report. You can follow the launch today and the conversations that follow this week using #VisionforNature. I’d like to say a big thank you to everyone who contributed in any way whatsoever to it, and also to use this blog as a chance to pay tribute to Lucy McRobert, the visionary, emerging young leader who founded A Focus on Nature four years ago.

    The report uses not only policy analysis and recommendations, but also creative writing, photography and art to set out our vision, thereby trying to appeal to people’s hearts as well as their heads. It covers a number of topic areas and was put together by gathering the views of over 200 young people through focus groups, surveys, interviews and social media.

    But we also know that we're not alone. Polling that we’ve had commissioned and are also publishing today reveals that nine out of ten 16-34 year olds think it’s important (quite important or very important) for politicians to take care of the environment.

    The vision we have for the future is ambitious, some may even think it is unrealistic. We don’t know where all the money would come from for our ideas. We’d like to work with NGOs like RSPB, businesses and politicians to figure this out. But it is the start of a conversation about the future we need and want for wildlife.

    For example, the UK Government has just indefinitely postponed publication of its 25-year plan for nature. We think delay is not an option: nature urgently needs our help now. However, our top recommendation is for the development not of a 25-year plan for nature, but of a 250-year plan for nature. While we can destroy a creature or special place in the blink of an eye it takes decades for nature to recover and it needs to be safeguarded for many generations to come, not just one generation.

    We hope the new Secretary of State for the Environment will take a look at our ideas and be open to meeting with us. Where has the consultation with young people, whose futures will be most affected by it, been during the development of Government’s 25-year plan? The publication of our report today provides an opportunity for those conversations to begin where they have been lacking to date.

    We also call for at least ten city national parks to be created across the UK; for all subsidies and tax breaks for fossil fuels to be redirected towards renewable energy; and for lots of land to be allowed to ‘rewild’ with lost species and large herbivores and omnivores reintroduced to help natural processes take hold again. We think these recommendations need to be adopted by all four governments of the UK. We’d love the opportunity to meet and speak with politicians, businesses leaders and NGO staff from across the UK to discuss our ideas.

    This report does more than set out some recommendations though. It puts a stake in the ground for the UK’s burgeoning youth nature movement. Thanks to the work of RSPB and others, we know that people, and the young in particular, are less and less connected to nature than ever before. This is bad for them, their health and their communities. It’s also bad for nature, because if fewer people experience wildlife, then fewer people will protect and care about it.

    But there is also a rapidly growing movement of young people who love wildlife who are using social media to create communities of support and enjoyment; and who are embodying the startup spirit to create events and projects of their own to reconnect with nature and wildlife. Groups like A Focus on Nature are being joined by others, such as Bristol and Sheffield Nature Networks and Action for Conservation, as well as initiatives in other countries like CoalitionWild and Bioneers whom we are now building relationships with too. Slowly but surely, I think we are building an international youth nature movement not unlike the international youth climate movement that I was also lucky enough to be part of for a number of years. It is a very exciting time to be a young person who’s passionate about nature.

    So this is our vision for the future, and we’d love to hear what you think of it and for you to be part of it. If you’d like to help us address the challenge of making it reality, please get in touch with us.

    Image courtesy of Matt Williams

  • Brexit implications for wildlife friendly farming: long-term opportunity, short-term jeopardy

    In the white noise of the past couple of weeks you may have missed the publication of the latest Breeding Bird Survey results which showed turtle dove numbers have hit a new low, declining by 93% since 1994. This trend is mirrored across Europe, with a decline of 78% between 1980 and 2013.

    As many of you will know, this is a species that is facing threats on migration and on its wintering grounds, but it has, like many other birds, also been affected by agricultural changes on its breeding grounds.  This is why through Operation Turtle Dove the RSPB and its partners are carrying out a range of targeted actions including promoting turtle dove friendly land management to farmers through agri-environment schemes (paid for through the EU Common Agriculture Policy).

    From the recovery of species, to the creation of habitats, planting of trees, maintenance of iconic landscapes and action to mitigate flood risk and address water quality, these agri-environment schemes have been pivotal to terrestrial conservation efforts and broader environmental land management. They have engaged farmers in more sustainable models of production, demonstrated the potential for more effective approaches to farm support and provided value for money to taxpayers across the UK.

    And yet, all of this has been called into question by Brexit.

    Andy Hay's image of Hope Farm research trial (

    As I wrote in my open letter to the new Secretary of State, Andrea Leadsom MP, on Friday, the uncertainty associated with Brexit means that these agri-environment schemes are now on hold as Defra and the Treasury figure out whether they want to carry 100% of the costs for these 5 to 10 years agreements once we leave the EU.   

    This demands urgent attention from the new Defra Ministerial team, which as of yesterday includes Therese Coffey MP, who replaces Rory Stewart MP as Biodiversity Minister.  I am confident that the new Minister will grasp the seriousness of the issue given that she is species champion for the bittern and so no stranger to species conservation priorities.

    Without incentives to encourage wildlife-friendly farming, governments across the UK will not just fail to meet their environmental commitments – such as those driven by the Convention on Biological Diversity or the country biodiversity strategies – they will go backwards. Farms will fall out of agreement, habitats will no longer be managed, and species conservation efforts will be fatally undermined. For species like the turtle dove that’s teetering on the edge of extinction, this could sign its death warrant as a breeding bird in the UK.

    In England alone, between now and 2019/2020, over 4600 Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) agreements will expire. If the new scheme is effectively discontinued now, that’s over 4600 farmers who have invested their time and effort let down, and millions of pounds of taxpayer’s money wasted. It would undermine the confidence of the farming community in the concept of environmental land management, and scupper any chances of taking the opportunities that a post-Brexit agriculture policy could offer.

    As a quick example, our farm – Hope Farm - in Cambridgeshire is in an Entry Level Stewardship (ELS) agreement that expires in September 2017, slap bang in the middle of a potential Brexit no man’s land. Without Defra continuing with the new scheme in England, Countryside Stewardship, the management that has led to a 200% increase in breeding birds on the farm would be left unsupported. We’ll of course carry it on, but for many farmers in a similar position, to do so would not be economically viable.

    While I do see real opportunity for reforming agriculture policy once we have left the EU, there is real jeopardy now. 

    Thousands of farmers have completed or requested application packs this year. If we are not to derail all of the potential good work these applications represent, we need firm statements from governments across the UK that they are committed to these schemes for the foreseeable future. We don’t have time to lose if the Government is to meet its manifesto commitment of restoring UK biodiversity within 25 years.