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
  • How to prevent Martha's fate becoming an allegory for our times

    Today marks the centenary of the death of Martha, the last American Passenger Pigeon.  My predecessor, Mark Avery, has written an excellent book (here) on the demise of this species and is popping back to the Lodge today to give a talk on the subject.

    Parallels have been drawn between the extinction of this species and the plight of birds such as the turtle dove which has suffered a 74% decline across Europe since 1970 and whose UK population is halving every six years.

    The plight of turtle dove was on my mind while I was on holiday in the Pyrenees.  I was lucky enough to be staying on a farm in Catalonia where there was a small flock of turtle doves.  I think my family and friends grew slightly tired of me getting excited every time another landed to feed in one of the feeds next to our house.  But, knowing Martha's story and the potential implications of what might happen to turtle doves in my life time, can take some of the joy out of the simple wonder of watching a flock of beautiful birds go about their day to day business.

    Andy Hay's wonderful image of two turtle doves: an image that I tried and failed to capture on holiday

    Today is also the start of the new parliamentary year, the last before the general election in May.  Politicians returning from their holidays to Westminster will want to focus on the new legislative agenda but will inevitably have half an eye on the forthcoming election campaign and the pitch that they will make to the electorate through their manifestos. 

    It is not hyperbolic to say that the fate of turtle dove as a breeding species relies on this generation of politicians. 

    We're doing out bit.  We launched Operation Turtle Dove in May 2012 to stop the turtle dove following the same path as the passenger pigeon.  This is a partnership between the RSPB, Conservation Grade, Pensthorpe Conservation Trust and Natural England.  Together, we are identifying the primary causes of the decline through research right across their long migration. We then develop urgent practical solutions – such as advising farmers how they can provide food for turtle doves on their land or campaigning to stop spring hunting in the Med.

    But we also need politicians to do what only they can do.  This is why we spend so much time trying to influence them to adapt policy and legislation to benefit nature.  There is another example of this today as alongside Green Alliance and six other environmental NGOs, we’ve published Greener Britain (here), our challenge and our offer to all political parties to make the natural environment a part of their big ideas for that next election and part of their plan for realising them.

    We've set out seven steps for delivering on the big ideas including a Nature and Well-being Act, setting out the long term plan for nature’s recovery and recognising its fundamental importance to our economy, sense of place and well-being. The group is also calling for a mega marine sanctuary, ranging from the tropics to the Southern Ocean, including Ascension Island—our vital home for biodiversity in the Overseas Territories. These ideas fit neatly with a set of proposals for decarbonisation, better resource use, and rewards for local environmental action, which together add up to a comprehensive manifesto for a greener Britain.

    When it comes to saving nature, everyone has a role to play.  That is why, on Wednesday this week with others, we have organised a conference to showcase the game changing interventions that businesses are making to address the state of nature.  Business leaders will mingle with politicians and environmental NGOs with the hope that this will galvanise politicians to take the necessary steps to make it easier for others to do great things for nature.

    Whether our efforts are sufficient will inevitably to be scrutinised by the next generation of environmentalists who are gathering for their "A Focus on Nature" conference on Friday.  I'll be there and am looking forward to hear how satisfied they are with the work we are doing to safeguard the heritage that they will inherit from us.  I have a feeling I know what they will say. 

    So, it's a big week and the start of an important year.  But our test is to ensure that the fortunes of species like turtle dove improve and Martha's fate does not become an allegory of our times.

  • Why I am voting for Bob

    A couple of weeks ago - around the time I was watching a red squirrel dancing in the trees in the Pyrenees - the RSPB launched a new campaign designed to raise the political profile of nature conservation.

    Through our 'Vote for Bob' campaign we want to tap into people's latent concern about wildlife and inspire them to act in a way that encourages politicians to do the things that people care about and that nature needs. 

    Yes, its figurehead is a red squirrel but the objective of the campaign is to encourage politicians, in the run up to next May's General Election, to make significant manifesto commitments to save nature.

    Returning from my holiday, I have been delighted by the surge of support that Bob has received.  More than 65,000 people have already pledged their support including a number of politicians.

    At times during the economic crisis, saving nature has been seen by some as an optional extra and a ‘nice to have’ - a minority interest rather than something that is demanded by many and essential for all. 

    This is why over the coming weeks we will be finding innovative ways to reach out to many more people and will be publicly demonstrating the strength of support for 'Bob' and therefore for nature. 

    The RSPB has always campaigned for change.  We were born out of the ambition to challenge laws that allowed the killing of wild birds for fashion. We have a long history of trying to influence change in attitudes, behaviour, policy and legislation: from campaigning to end the use of DDT and the wild bird trade, to arguing successfully for new laws to protect our finest wildlife sites and to tackle climate change.  Campaigning is part of our heritage. 

    Yet, for us to have greater impact, we need to find ways of mobilising people we know are behind us, but who need to be presented with the right way to join in.  And that is where 'Bob' comes in.

    The more people back Bob, the easier it should be for Bob's political allies within the parties to make the case for strong commitments to nature in manifestos.

    That's why I'm backing Bob and I urge you to do so as well.


  • Guest blog: Conserving Kazakhstan’s golden treasures on a breathtaking scale by Stephanie Ward and Geoff Welch

    This year, I have been slightly obsessing about the need to protect the best wildlife areas.  At times in the UK, if we are lucky, we talk about protecting a few hundred hectares.  Other countries sometimes have the opportunity of thinking on a grander scale.  Here is a grand-daddy of an example from my colleagues Stephanie Ward and Geoff Welch...

    Imagine standing in an endless sea of gently waving grass dotted with red poppies, red and yellow tulips, yellow and blue irises and white milk vetch, listening to a cacophony of lark song or the high pitched whistle of a bobak marmot, steppe eagles soaring overhead and no sign of human presence as far as the eye can see – this is ‘Altyn Dala’ in spring.

    Altyn Dala, which translates from Kazakh as the ‘Golden Steppe’, is one of the most ambitious and breathtaking species and habitat conservation projects that the RSPB are involved in, indeed the scale is unprecedented in the world.

    The Association for the Conservation of Biodiversity of Kazakhstan (ACBK, BirdLife Kazakhstan), the Government of Kazakhstan Forestry and Hunting Committee, Frankfurt Zoological Society and the RSPB together form the Altyn Dala Conservation Initiative (ADCI) which is working to conserve 50 million hectares (ha) of steppe grassland in central Kazakhstan – that’s an area the size of France!

    The steppes themselves are of global importance, and one of the least protected habitats in the world. They support a huge diversity of wildlife from breeding sociable lapwings and black larks to millions of migrating waterbirds, from desert monitors to Horsfield’s tortoises and from the little known desert dormouse to the enigmatic, if somewhat bizarre looking, saiga antelope.

    Working on 50 million ha at once is impractical so most activities have concentrated on the Irgyz-Turgai-Zhylanshyk (ITZ) pilot area which covers a ‘mere’ 5 million ha but encompasses the former range of the Betpak-Dala saiga antelope population, the largest population in Kazakhstan. And it is work on saiga, combining good old fashioned fieldwork with state of the art technology, that is bringing the conservation of this outstanding area one step closer to success.

    Saiga antelope is the flagship species for steppe conservation in Kazakhstan as over one million animals formerly grazed the grasslands maintaining a rich mosaic of vegetation. Heavy poaching in the 1990s brought the species to the edge of extinction with perhaps less than 30,000 surviving. But as the result of groundbreaking research by ACBK, close collaboration with the RSPB and the government anti-poaching authority, called ‘Okhotzooprom’, the Betpak-Dala population had increased to 150,000 in 2013 and the trend is continuing upwards.

    However, conserving saiga antelope is not straightforward as they undertake an annual migration covering an area of several million hectares - declaring all of this as protected areas is clearly impractical, even by Kazakh standards. Therefore a landscape scale approach to conservation is required and this is at the heart of the ADCI – to establish an effective network of sites reintroducing  and conserving key species and an ecologically representative selection of steppe and semi-desert ecosystems.

    To understand their migration, ACBK have successfully fitted satellite transmitters to over 40 saiga antelope since 2009 and as a result have mapped how they use the steppe grassland. This has highlighted their major migration routes, as well as vitally important calving and wintering areas.

    By combining this information with the results of biodiversity and socio-economic surveys and overlapping the data with the current protected areas network, ACBK have been able to identify new areas for protected area designation. Based on ACBK’s recommendations, in November 2012 the Kazakh government established a new protected area – the Altyn Dala State Reservat covering 489,776 ha – and announced its intention to extend the Irgyz-Turgai State Reservat by 410,000 ha.

    Of even more significance, though, is that by using its data in the MARXAN computer programme, ACBK has been able to identify land suitable for an ecological corridor to link these two Reservats to provide safe migration routes for saiga antelopes and other wildlife - The 'Yrgyz-Torgai-Zhylanshyk’ wildlife corridor was officially declared by the Kazakh Government in July 2014, as the first ever ecological corridor in Kazakhstan, based on new legislation developed by our project partners and the UNDP. This corridor alone is just over 2 million hectares in area - just bigger than Wales!

    The area now under protection is a staggering 3.67 million ha and consists of a combination of state protected areas, commercially managed hunting areas and privately managed land, each with their own management objectives and activities.

    The RSPB has provided technical expertise to develop a mechanism for combining these different interests to produce an integrated land management plan for the area as a whole that will deliver both conservation and economic benefits, especially in terms of sustainable hunting. This is the first operational ecological corridor in Kazakhstan and it is hoped it will become the template for the establishment of other integrated management areas elsewhere in the country and, potentially, beyond.

    There are additional reasons to be jubilant about this corridor being established. Kazakhstan’s state-owned oil company requested permission to conduct exploration work on the territory of the state nature reservat "Altyn Dala".

    The request was rejected due to the existing reserve, but a new request by the oil company proposed areas around the reserves, on the proposed corridor area, which was at that time still awaiting official designation. ACBK and UNDP lobbied hard to get the corridor officially approved in order that the second request could be similarly rejected, which it was. A great success!

    With these lands secured, the next steps for Altyn Dala are to re-establish self-sustaining populations of other original large steppe grazing herbivores - Przewalski’s horse, wild ass (kulan) and goitered gazelle – To gain a better understanding of the role of the little known ‘steppe’ wolf in maintaining healthy populations of saiga antelopes – to identify and protect the other missing pieces of this enormous conservation puzzle - And finally to ensure that all these truly incredible areas, their rich wildlife and local communities can be sustained economically in the long term.