Martin Harper's blog

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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
  • Say it ain't so, Beefy

    It's a sad day when your childhood hero, whose picture hangs in your downstairs loo, attacks the organisation you work for and whose mission you care passionately about.  But, remarkably, Sir Ian Botham (who owns a shoot) has joined forces with others from the shooting community to launch a complaint to the Charity Commission regarding the RSPB's expenditure on fundraising as opposed to nature reserves.

    When I saw the website that Sir Ian is fronting, I thought someone had hacked into his internet account again.  Have a look for yourself here.  You will quite quickly realise that this is not one of Beefy's infamous in-swinging yorkers that did for Rod Marsh et al in his devastating spell at Edgbaston in 1981*.  There's a lot of nonsense written and some of it is actually quite funny - wondering why, for example, we don't spend more time promoting chickens.   I think our charitable objects may stop short of permitting us to do chicken conservation.

    But, before anyone dismisses this as a Botham long-hop, I am reminded that he managed to pick up quite a few wickets with his bad deliveries.

    Any complaint to the Charity Commission, even if motivated by the fact that we have hardened our position on grouse shooting, deserves to be taken seriously.

    The central charge is that only 24% of our charitable expenditure is on nature reserves and, in an outrageously lazy slog-sweep aside, that our reserves aren't any good for birds. Really?

    Abernethy - one of 210 fabulous nature reserves (Andy Hay, rspb-images.com)

    The RSPB is 125 years old this year.  Throughout our history, we've always campaigned to change policy, legislation, attitudes, and behaviour.  Yes, we started to acquire nature reserves in 1930 (Cheyne Court, Romney Marsh - yes, Romney not Rodney) and we now have the responsibility of looking after 15,000 species on 210 nature reserves across more than 150,000 hectares.   We're proud of the work that we do on our reserves and I reject any suggestion that our dedicated team of staff and volunteers are 'ineffective'.  

    Yet, we've never believed that our nature reserves - brilliant as they are - will ever be sufficient to save threatened wildlife on their own.  How can they be when they only cover 0.6% of the UK surface area?  You we can't save nature by putting a fence around reserves and hoping the remaining 99.4% will take care of itself.  

    On the day that we hear of Beefy's attack, the UK Government also reported (see here) on progress of the wild bird indicator: woodland birds down 28% since 1970, seabirds down 24% since 1986, and farmland birds are now at their lowest level down 55% since 1970.  We care about these declines, we want to do something about them and we know that we cannot rely on nature reserves alone.

    Cirl bunting: a bird that we have, through working with farmers, helped to bring back from the brink (Andy Hay, rspb-images.com)

    I am sorry Beefy, but that means we will spend money on researching why species are declining, we will work out what needs to be done to help them, we will work with farmers to advise them on how to manage their land for wildlife, we will save special places by fighting inappropriate development and yes, heretical it may be to some, we will seek to influence governments to change policy.  And you know what, we will continue to try to grow the market of people that are interested in nature conservation - the motivation behind our Giving Nature a Home advertising - or, through Vote for Bob, to urge politicians to give nature a fair showing in their manifestos.  The threats to the natural world are so great that we have to use modern techniques to ensure nature's voice is heard.

    We've done this for 125 years and we plan to continue.  Our members will expect nothing less.

    And if you keep bowling us long hops, we'll crash them to the boundary.  And, if you continue to slur us, we'll get our own Bob Willis to bowl at you.

    Howzat?

    *If you don't know your cricket, Edgbaston was the second of the three tests in the 1981 Ashes series where Sir Ian was named man of the match for his match-winning spell of 5 wickets for 1 run in 28 balls.  You can watch it again here.

  • When humans and wildlife collide...

    Am off to Bristol today to participate in a meeting of Defra's Biodivesity Programme Board. This is the group that has the responsibility for ensuring targets in England's Biodversity Strategy are on track.

    These targets (for species, habitats, sites and ecosystems) are a translation of global commitments which the UK Government signed up to at the Convention on Biological Diversity meeting in Nagoya, Japan in 2010. Report on progress comes through a publication of indicators later in the year.

    These indicators provide a signal as to how well we are doing to fulfil our legal and political commitments. We all play our part in trying to meet these targets - Defra, its agencies, landowners, businesses, NGOs and individuals - but ultimately, of course, the buck stops with ministers. I trust that they are keeping a close eye on the performance of this group.

    As I go into this meeting, there is a lot on my mind.

    This morning, for example, we'll see the publication of the Farmland Bird Index - a composite assessment of how 19 species dependent on the farmed landscape are faring. I hope for good news, but I expect the worse. This index has shown a long-term downward trend, a trend that was only halted by investment in subsidies to support wildlife friendly farming. The trend for birds is replicated in other groups for example farmland butterflies and carabid beetles. The index is published during a period when the new agri-environment scheme is being designed. While there is less money to go around, because of effective lobbying by the NFU, it is vital that the new schemes are well designed and tailored to meet the needs of threatened sites and species. This is the test of whether the schemes provide good use of tax-payers money.

    Yesterday, we announced our new Hen Harrier initiative (funded through the EU's LIFE+ programme) which will help us play our part in saving this iconic species which is clinging on as a breeding species in England but is threatened - due to persecution - throughout the UK. As our project manager, Blánaid Denman, said yesterday "The cross-border project provides a huge boost to our efforts to monitor and protect hen harriers. Working together with volunteers and other organisations, we’ll have more eyes and ears on the hills than ever before, using satellite tagging, winter-roost monitoring and nest protection to deter persecution, identify the important areas for these birds and highlight where they’re most at risk.” Our intention is simple - to stamp out illegal killing.

    On Tuesday, I wrote about the threats posed by diffuse pollution and water abstraction to two of our most important wildlife sites: Sutton and Catfield Fens. How we treat these sites is an indication of the seriousness we take our responsibility for protecting our finest wildlife sites.

    And, we still await the decision of ministers as to whether they will grant a public inquiry regarding Medway Council's decision to grant outline planning permission for building 5,000 houses at Lodge Hill - one of our finest wildlife sites for nightingales, grassland and woodland.

    These are just four conservation stories but they illustrate what happens when humans needs and wildlife needs collide: when we want to grow more food alongside wildlife, when we want to increase a shootable surplus of grouse and when we want to build homes for humans on the homes of nature.

    The 'short' vision of the Convention on Biological Diversity provides, in nutshell, our challenge: to live in harmony with nature. We need this vision to be translated into the language and actions of any political party and of special interest groups for developers, farming and grouse shooting.

    Get it wrong and it is not just wildlife that suffers, we all do. And that's why today and everyday, we'll be fighting to save our shared home.

  • The case for Catfield (part 2)

    Catfield and Sutton Fens are two really special places.  They are home to a remarkable number of rare and threatened species: 109 Red Data Book species including well over 90% of the UK population of the endangered Fen Orchid.

    Readers of this blog will know that I’m very fond of these sites (see here).  Their importance means that we take our management responsibility very seriously indeed (in the case of Catfield, on behalf of the owners Butterfly Conservation).  But, like so many of the sites that we manage, not everything is in our control.

    Recent events have served to illustrate the vulnerability of these sites that are tucked away in the heart of the Norfolk Broads. A vulnerability that ought to grab the attention of anyone interested in preventing further declines of already threatened species.

    Sutton Fen, Ben Hall rspb-images.com

    Over the next month or so the Environment Agency will decide whether to grant two new abstraction license renewals adjacent to the sites.  Allowing local land owners to continue to take large volumes of water from this wetland haven will pose a very real threat to the fen and some of the UK’s rarest species that make a home there. A dramatic, single decision that will no doubt get attention and something we are primed and ready to fight if we need to.

    However, whilst this unfolding drama will grab the headlines, a more subtle but insidious story can often be overlooked.  In addition to the threat of water abstraction, since 2010 Catfield and Sutton Fens have been experiencing the impact of a more subtle menace, known in the business as ‘diffuse pollution’.  This is when surface water runs off agricultural land after heavy rainfall, washing farmland soils into the fen.  Sediments loaded with nutrients such as nitrate and phosphate flood the delicately balanced natural environment, encouraging the growth of common species such as reed and willow, at the expense of smaller, rarer flowering species such as orchids.

    Water, laden with sediment, doesn’t have much oxygen in it, which can also make it difficult for invertebrates to survive.  Imagine if you were one of the rare water beetles making a home on the site, the crystal clear oxygen rich water that you are used to turns to an orange, chemical filled soup.

    Last week, the latest chapter in this second story was written.  After a night of heavy rainfall, sediment filled water coursed into Catfield and Sutton Fens.  The team tells me that by day 2, 1.5 hectares of SSSI had been affected.  By day 3 this had gone up to 3 hectares.  Beyond this area, I am led to believe that the chemicals are likely to still be having an impact up to 2 km away and it is very likely as winter weather sets in this kind of event will continue to happen, causing yet more damage.  My colleagues were pleased to see the Environment Agency staff on site just hours after we reported this event as a formal pollution incident.

    Since 2010, when the team discovered this new threat to these rich wetland sites, colleagues have spent time and money putting in water control structures, ditch management and the placement of reedbeds as filtration systems to help lessen the impacts.  They have now reached a point where they have done all they can, and now look to the Environment Agency and Natural England to investigate the issue thoroughly and take all appropriate steps to mitigate any further impacts.  In 2013 they recognised that there was a real problem, and we hope that these recent events will catalyse action.

    We can see some simple measures that can improve the situation, such as ensuring that basic soil protection measures are enforced.  All we can do now is wait to see the category of severity the Environment Agency assign to this case.  This guides the work they will do to take action to protect the abundant and rare wildlife found across Catfield and Sutton Fens from similar events in future.

    My visit to Catfield and Sutton Fens has been one of my highlights of 2014. They are fragile and special places. I am left with the overwhelming feeling that two of the most special fens in western Europe deserve far better and we should be more proactive in dealing with the threats they face.  That's why I am going to keep a close eye on what happens next.  I hope to be able to provide an update on the actions that Environment Agency and Natural England propose in the coming weeks.