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
  • What does Brexit mean for farming and the environment in the UK?

    In the political tumult that followed the referendum, one of our most immediate concerns centered on what would happen to the EU funding that underpins so much of the nature conservation effort in the UK. This week saw the Governments first meaningful contribution to this debate, as the Treasury moved to guarantee a range of EU funding streams beyond Brexit. 

    Despite ongoing uncertainty, the announcement from the Treasury at the weekend to guarantee that all agri-environment agreements signed before the autumn this year will be honoured will provide some welcome relief in the short-term.

    The commitment to ‘fully fund’ existing agreements, some of which run until 2026, “...even when these projects continue beyond the UK’s departure from the EU” is  also a clear signal to the farming community that agri-environment schemes are a safe bet in uncertain times. By committing to underwrite these schemes beyond 2020 – in contrast to their limited guarantee on Pillar I funding – it appears that the Westminster Government sees the environment as central to the future of farm support. This is welcome news, and provides farmers with the certainty they need this year to apply for these crucial schemes with confidence.

    Looking ahead to next year and the years after though before any 'Brexit', the news is more ambiguous. The Treasury will put in place 'arrangements' to assess whether to proceed with agri-environment and other schemes vital for wildlife, including a range of EU-funded environmental projects. Clearly the Government needs to have a process to understand the financial liability the UK Exchequer is signing up to. However, carrying this early commitment to agri-environment schemes beyond the Autumn Statement so that farmers can continue to apply for these schemes will be an early litmus test of whether the UK position on the CAP (of a policy reformed to focus much more on environmental public goods) will carry over to a post-Brexit Britain, or whether this was always just hollow rhetoric.  

    Securing this Treasury commitment to agri-environment will be a major focus of our advocacy in the next few months, and we hope that the farming unions and landowner organisations across the UK will join us given the importance of this funding to many of their members. At the same time we need urgent clarity on how this commitment will be delivered by the devolved governments and administrations around the UK.

    Thinking more broadly about what comes next, although we recognise the need for a transition period, the Treasury commitment to current levels of spending on Pillar I subsidies to 2020 must not lock us into the perversities of the CAP. The outcome of the referendum should be an opportunity to fundamentally reform agriculture policy, and payments up to 2020 need to start us on this journey, and set out a clear direction of travel toward more sustainable farming.

    Finally, the commitment to honouring EU funded projects such as the LIFE programme is great news for the UK’s wildlife. Now that we have certainty on some of these short-term issues, the onus is on governments across the UK to set out how agriculture and environment policies are to be developed for the future. 

    The outcome of the referendum result has created a shift so massive that it is too early to comprehend what it will mean for farming and the environment in the UK in the long term. Given the seismic shift we face, and the importance of agriculture and land use to so many of the things the public value, it is essential that we develop policies in a clear and transparent way, which ensures all stakeholders and the wider public have a chance to have their voice heard. Farmers are clearly important stakeholders in this debate – but this issue is too important for for a narrow conversation between Government and the farming unions.

  • The effect of toxic lead on duck populations in the UK

    On the day our new Prime Minister took over, the then Defra Secretary of State Liz Truss announced that she would not accept the advice given by the expert Lead Ammunition Group (LAG), set up by Defra, that she should phase out the use of toxic lead ammunition for sport shooting and replace it with readily available non-toxic alternatives.  The RSPB thinks that this decision is regrettable because many birds die in the UK every year when they swallow lead ammunition. Long-running attempts to reduce this toll by a partial ban on its use in wetlands have been disregarded by many shooters and have not worked, as Ms Truss accepts. I have asked one of my colleagues, Professor Rhys Green, who is a member of Lead Ammunition Group and has published widely on the effects of lead, to offer his perspective on this decision and describe results from a newly-published paper of which he is a co-author.

    One of the reasons the Secretary of State gave for rejecting the LAG’s advice was that their report did not provide direct evidence of an impact on bird numbers in England of poisoning by lead ammunition.  Whether this assertion is correct or not is debatable. The report provides plenty of evidence of impacts in England that would be likely to have a population-level effects and such impacts have been documented in other countries where lead ammunition is used. However, no detailed research on population-level effects on birds in England or the UK had been published when the LAG’s report was finalised, so Defra took absence of evidence to be evidence of absence.  However, a peer-reviewed scientific paper providing evidence of such effects on duck populations in the UK had already been accepted for publication in the international journal Ibis at the time. Defra had been informed about the details of the research by the LAG two months earlier and had a copy of the accepted paper.  That paper has now been published online and is free-to-view here.

    The study analysed systematic annual counts of wintering ducks in the UK over a 40-year period. It compared the average rates at which populations of different duck species have changed over time with species differences in their tendency to swallow spent lead gunshot, which they find in mud and eat in mistake for food or grit.  These differences between species are consistent in different countries, and even on different continents, and seem to be linked to the birds’ diet and the way they feed.  Duck species like gadwall that feed mainly on leaves take in fine grit particles and rarely swallow gunshot, but other species like pintail that often eat large seeds also take in large particles of grit to help grind up their food. These species, especially the pintail and pochard, but also the much commoner mallard, also often swallow gunshot pellets, which are of similar size to the seeds and grit they are seeking.  The new study found that populations of species with a propensity to swallow gunshot have been declining whilst those that rarely swallow gunshot have been increasing. Some would argue that this pattern is just a coincidence, even though it is a strikingly close relationship.  However, the study also goes on to estimate how large the differences among species in the annual death rate caused by lead poisoning should be, based upon data on the proportion of dead birds with gunshot in their gizzard. This shows that the size of the species differences in population trend are pretty close to what would be expected if they were caused solely by differences in levels of lead poisoning.  Therefore these results constitute correlative evidence that lead poisoning is causing population-level effects on birds in the UK and indicate that it alone may be  sufficient to have caused the marked population declines of some duck species.  Of these, the pochard is of special concern because it has declined so much that it is now listed by IUCN as globally threatened.

    We know that a previous attempt to remove unnecessary lead from the environment in England paid off because government action to achieve it  had a population-level on an iconic bird species in England. After much unjustified protest about a supposed lack of definitive scientific evidence about adverse effects on wildlife, anglers were prevented from using lead weights for fishing in 1987.  Sounds familiar doesn’t it? On that occasion, the restrictions on the use of lead were respected, lead poisoning of mute swans decreased dramatically and their populations increased.

    I think that the huge amount of evidence that lead ammunition poses an easily avoidable hazard to the health of wildlife and people already available in the LAG report and its annexes should have been sufficient to convince Defra to phase out its use.   That said, the one evidence gap the previous Secretary of State appears to have focussed on, a lack of population-level impact on birds, has now been plugged. This now presents an even clearer case for change and we trust the new Secretary of State, Andrea Leadsom, will take the opportunity for progress which her predecessor neglected.

    The full report to Defra by the Lead Ammunition Group can be seen here.

  • 100,000 people call for a ban on driven grouse shooting

    This is a guest blog by Jeff Knott, Head of Nature Policy marking the enormous achievement  by the campaign to ban grouse shooting.

    Over 100,000 people have now signed this petition to ban driven grouse shooting. This is a huge achievement from everyone involved, including of course the petitions creator, my former boss, Mark Avery.

    What makes it all the more impressive is that this is a genuine grassroots movement. It’s not the result of a coordinated campaign by a big conservation organisation. Its support has grown organically, as groups of people have flocked to its message.

    We have not called for a ban, our position is to press reform through licensing but we are under no illusion ... this is a spectacular achievement this is a powerful message that will not be ignored.

    So what happens next? Well, having secured the magic 100,000 signatures, something only a tiny handful of petitions manage, there will be a parliamentary debate on the issue.

    The RSPB will actively promote this to MPs, encouraging them to attend the debate and emphasising why change is vital. We don’t believe a ban is inevitable, so in the briefing, we will highlight our view that licensing is the best way to secure these changes and talk about why this approach could work. The best way for law-abiding shoots to avoid a future ban, is to embrace licensing and deliver meaningful change.

    We will also ask our supporters to write to their MPs, asking them to attend the debate and speak positively.

    We should all be realistic. This debate is unlikely to lead to an immediate change. I’d be amazed if either a ban or licensing was introduced off the back of it. However, it can still make a huge positive contribution to moving the debate forward. 100,000 signatures for change, backed by a strong debate where the necessity and options are clearly set out can be a major turning point in the fight for our hen harriers and our uplands.

    That fight will need to go on and we will of course continue to be part of it, as I’m sure everyone who signed this petition will too. This isn’t the end, but it might be the beginning of the end.

    So congratulations to everyone involved in the petition. Now let’s work together to make the debate a success and then to secure the changes we need to see.