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
  • A minute’s not-so-quiet reflection: Guest blog from Conor Jameson on the 50th anniversary of the death of Rachel Carson

    With the launch this month of the RSPB’s programme to tackle the crisis facing migrant songbirds, Conor Jameson, colleague and author of Silent Spring Revisited, reflects on a poignant anniversary that falls today.

    The 50th anniversary of the US publication of Silent Spring inspired a flurry of headlines and comment in autumn 2012, particularly, of course, in North America, where author Rachel Carson is still widely revered. UK publication of this iconic book came a year later, in 1963, although by then the ripples had already been felt on this side of the Atlantic. Prince Phillip is said to have brought advance copies of Silent Spring to these shores aboard the royal yacht, so alarmed had he been by the insights within it.

    The words ‘silent spring’ were quickly ingrained in the public consciousness as the book sold worldwide. I sometimes wonder if any title, aside from religious texts, has been registered by so many, even those who have never picked up the book.

    What’s less well remembered about Rachel Carson is an event that gives us the third of three consecutive half-century anniversaries, and which falls on 14 April 2014. On that fine spring Sunday evening, in a Maryland town called Silver Spring, Rachel Carson died.

    She had lived barely 18 months beyond publication of her world-changing book; long enough to witness its extraordinary initial impact, and to weather the extreme backlash it provoked from sections of industry and the scientific community. Long enough too to be vindicated by President Kennedy’s Scientific Advisory Committee, specially appointed to examine the validity of the issues ‘Miss Carson’ had raised and exposed.

    CBS broadcast a special programme when the Committee released its findings. “Miss Rachel Carson had two immediate aims,” it declared. “One was to alert the public; the second, to build a fire under the Government. She accomplished the first aim months ago. Tonight’s report by the Presidential panel is prima facie evidence that she has accomplished the second.”

    “The report has vindicated me and my principal contentions,” Carson responded. “I am particularly pleased by the reiteration of the fact that the public is entitled to the facts... My reason for writing Silent Spring.”

    I’ve been giving talks on the theme of Rachel Carson’s legacy. People are usually shocked when I mention that Rachel Carson died so soon after Silent Spring, that she didn’t live to see the later impacts of its message: the banning of agrochemicals such as aldrin, dieldrin and heptachlor, the setting up of the Environmental Investigations Agency, and the withdrawal of DDT from the US a decade on, and later (as well as sooner) elsewhere.

    People were also shocked by news of Carson’s death in 1964, including many of those who knew her well. She hadn’t told them that she was seriously ill. In fact she had been battling illness for a substantial part of the four and half years it took to research and write Silent Spring.

    By the latter half of the project she was often in extreme discomfort. She kept secret her illness primarily because she was sure her opponents – the ranks of vested interest profiting from the ‘war on nature’ being waged at the time through indiscriminate ‘biocide’ use – would use it to undermine her still further, to question her motives and her objectivity.

    Rachel Carson had cancer. It has never been suggested – and certainly not by the author herself – that her condition was linked to agrochemical excesses. How could it be, any more that any individual case can be attributed to ambient toxins.

    But dying she most certainly was, and she bore this with the same quiet, stoic dignity that characterised all her public appearances and utterances. She was an extraordinarily resilient person, who overcame all the obstacles placed in the path of women wishing to train as scientists. She adopted and raised her orphaned grand-nephew. She was a carer and provider for older relatives too. Through the success of a trilogy of books on the marine environment she achieved the financial independence she needed, that made the Silent Spring project possible, despite everything. She had been able to retire from government service to work on the book, to bring the facts together and raise the alarm, knowing that government would not – or could not – do the job itself.

    It is the exceptional courage and dignity of Rachel Carson that I mostly urge people to recognise, as well as the wisdom of her words. If it were up to me, then April 14 would be officially designated as Rachel Carson Day. We might mark it each year not with a minute’s silence or even with a minute’s applause for her achievements. I’d advocate a minute’s birdsong – ideally the real thing.

  • For the love of...

    In advance of the publication of the latest report by the IPCC on how to mitigate climate change, and to signal the regalvanised civil society campaign for climate action at home and for a fair and binding global climate change deal, Stop Climate Chaos has morphed into The Climate Coalition

    It has also launched a new campaign - "for the love of" - to celebrate the things we love and to call on politicians to tackle climate change.   You can read more about it here and you can join in here.

    Here's my contribution...

    For the love of...

    ...wildlife (especially fabulous birds the kittiwake and golden plover)

    ...places (especially the Somerset Levels and my family's hut on the eroding cliff in Northumberland) and

    ...people (especially my family but also the Arsenal football team even when they fail to meet expectations - that's Arsenal, by the way, not the family)

    Let's tackle climate change.



    Image credits to Andy Hay (kittiwakes), Chris Gomersall (golden plover), David Woodfall (Somerset Levels) and me.

    What things do you love that are threatened by climate change?

    It would be great to hear your views.

  • Where the green money goes

    Guest blog post by Conor Jameson, Trusts Development Manager for the RSPB 

    Ever wondered how much money from charitable trusts and foundations is out there, for charities like RSPB to access? Luckily, our friends at the Environment Funders Network (EFN) produce regular, detailed reports on the state of green funding. Their latest report is hot off the press.

    We are delighted to see the publication of the latest (the sixth) edition of Where the Green Grants Went

    This timely report provides the most comprehensive overview yet of grants to environmental initiatives from UK foundations, the National Lottery, and public sector funding programmes. The report covers almost 6,000 grants from foundations and the Lottery.  Together, these are worth £383 million across the financial years under scrutiny, 2010/11 and 2011/12. 

    The RSPB is one of the participating organisations. We provided information to the EFN research team through questionnaires and phone interviews. We took part in a final ‘webinar’ – an online presentation of the findings, with discussion.

    What the report covers: 

    • detailed analysis of environmental grants from 180 foundations.
    • insights into the types of funding most needed by environmental groups, and the comparative advantages of foundation grants relative to other income sources
    • It includes perspectives from more than 100 chief executives on why they value philanthropic funding.
    • There is analysis of environmental grants from 31 lottery programmes, together worth almost £200 million over two years.
    • There is an overview of public sector grants programmes, and top-level analysis of their thematic and geographic focus.

    There is some good news. After a few years of recession-led decline, UK environmental philanthropy reached £112 million in 2011/12, its highest ever level. It is nudging up to 4% of the total funding available for charities from charitable foundations in the UK.

    But this isn’t enough. A key message remains that we need to see more foundations adopt the environment as a cause. The EFN is doing what it can to mobilise funders to bring more of them on board. Everyone has a role in saving nature.

    We’re discussing next steps, and bringing more funders together with the sector.

    Please click here to download the report, Where the Green Grants Went 6: Patterns of UK Funding for Environmental and Conservation Work by Phil Murray, Jon Cracknell, Heather Godwin, and Katy Scholfield.

    The authors would love to hear your feedback. Please use the comments form on their website or contact Florence Miller