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
  • Fracking fears for wildlife

    I'm still on annual leave this week so here's another guest post. This one's from our Head of Climate Change Policy, Harry Huyton.

    The debate over fracking for shale gas has taken over the environmental agenda in the past two weeks and voices on both sides are getting more and more shrill by the day. You can learn more about our position here.

    RSPB submitted its first objections to two fracking sites last week and signed a joint statement with other environment NGOs in the Sunday Times. Our position led to coverage across broadcast and print media over the weekend and has caused debate amongst some of our members and supporters. So it’s worth examining the reasons we have voiced our concern now.

    We don’t have any objection to new technology being used to help us produce energy – this is an exciting and important area of research. However we have, and always will, oppose individual developments in our countryside which have the potential to harm wildlife, be it a wind farm, a drilling well, a road or an airport.

    Fracking at Singleton in Lancashire – where Cuadrilla have proposed a well – may not disturb the thousands of wintering pink footed geese and whooper swans which arrive nearby each Autumn. It may not pollute water sources and it may not lead to us overshooting our climate targets.

    But the unquestionable fact is that we just don’t know. This is untested technology in the UK – a very different prospect to the US where fracking is now widespread. Developers do not need to fully investigate the impact drilling will have on the local environment. And the Government has not explained how extracting more fossil fuel from the ground will help us meet our climate targets.

    These are the central questions we are raising. But this debate is really another example of a deeper, underlying challenge our environment faces in the UK.

    The choice between renewed backing of fossil fuel extraction in the UK or continuing the transition to low carbon, renewable energy is a fundamental one. Too often, however, the currency of the debate is money. The Prime Minister recently talked about how “we cannot afford to miss out” on the benefits of fracking, for example, whilst the Environment Minister Owen Paterson talked of shale as a ‘god-given’ windfall. Fracking opponents often take a similarly human-centric approach, arguing about house prices and aesthetics.

    These are important considerations, but their dominance in Government’s thinking is a reflection of how disconnected politics has become from our natural environment. It has been argued that our dire economic straits make cashing in on our natural resources necessary, but recession is not an excuse to shed our values. The biggest single piece of wildlife protection legislation in this country was developed during the Second World War, yet today’s leaders appear to be clambering over themselves to reel in environmental progress at the mere whiff of economic benefit.

    Over in the ‘desolate’ North, along the banks of the Ribble, there remains a richness of wildlife that could inspire even the most urbanite Southern peer. In the spring and summer, you can see waders like avocets, redshank and godwit roaming the mudflats and wetlands. In autumn, hundreds of thousands of pink-footed geese arrive from as far as Siberia, providing an awesome wildlife spectacle. If you pay a visit, be sure to pop into Hesketh Out Marsh, one of our reserves in the area where you can see all this and more. It is our job as the RSPB to protect these special places, for wildlife, for people and for future generations.

    We are here to defend nature when it is under threat, whatever that threat may be. Without any reliable evidence that fracking is not a threat we will continue to do everything we can to stop it in its tracks.

    You can get involved in writing letters and e-mails to support RSPB campaigns and use your voice for nature. Click through to find out how you can campaign with us.

  • We're not giving up

    I'm on holiday this week so I've lined up my colleague, Jude Lane, to post on my behalf. You might remember Jude from the end of last year when she posted about the death of a hen harrier, Bowland Betty. Jude is our Bowland Project Officermonitoring the breeding attempts of hen harriers on the United Utilities estate within the Forest of Bowland.

    With the news officially out last week that no hen harriers bred successfully in England this year, where do we go from here?

    We’re certainly not giving up on one of our most iconic birds of prey, that’s for sure.

    Working in Bowland I am involved predominantly with species protection. Hen harrier nests (when we get them) are monitored 24 hours a day using cameras, but they also benefit from regular non-disturbance monitoring by staff and volunteers to ensure nests are progressing as we would expect and also to intervene should the nest be at risk from disturbance (at such low population densities, every nest needs to be given the greatest chance of success).

    Sadly, Bowland had another blank year. However, in Northumberland, one of England’s two failed nesting attempts was protected by both cameras and a 24/7 manual watch. This was a partnership project involving RSPB staff, Natural England, the Ministry of Defence, The Forestry Commission, Northumberland National Park Authority, local raptor workers, tenants and keepers who were very cooperative and happy to deploy diversionary (artificial) feeding if the need had arisen. Back in Bowland, the work we do on the United Utilities estate has shown over decades the benefit of how good will and open communication can allow partnerships to work together in order to achieve the best possible outcomes for breeding harriers.

    The loss of Bowland’s nesting harriers, for now, is part of a wider problem of providing effective protection for a bird that lives at a landscapes scale and calls the uplands of England and Southern Scotland home. Safety in one place is no guarantee of safety elsewhere. For example, take the story of Bowland Betty. This female hen harrier, from Bowland, was fitted with a satellite tag in 2011. After wandering around parts of the UK, she was located dead, after being shot on a grouse moor last year.  She was from the last cohort of harriers from Bowland.

    The first blank year of hen harriers in England has to be a watershed. We believe the recovery of the hen harrier in the uplands, especially in England, will rely on the Government grasping the nettle and establishing a positive vision for managing the uplands sustainably.

    This vision will take time to develop and even longer to see imprinted in our upland landscapes. In the short term we believe there are some immediate steps the Government can take.

    Firstly, we believe that estate owners should be held legally responsible for crimes committed by their employees; invoking the principle of vicarious liability.

    Also, we believe there should be tougher penalties for wildlife crimes and the introduction of a regulation scheme for grouse moors.

    We will be working hard to try and achieve these goals in Westminster. But we can’t ignore what’s happening on the ground in some parts of our uplands.  As part of my role I also work closely with our investigations team. These guys and girls are a fantastic and incredibly passionate group of people who are driven by the desire to investigate wildlife crimes and bring offenders to justice. And believe me; you need to be passionate about this stuff to do their job.  Catching rogues Hell-bent on killing harriers is an almost impossible task, especially in some of our wildest landscapes.. Thankfully, our investigations staff are made of tough stuff, and tough stuff combined with support and intelligence provided by field staff, regional raptor study groups, local police forces, members of the public (you guys) and with the latest in surveillance technology at their disposal, they are certainly a team to be reckoned with.

    Technology is helping in our battles against persecution.  One exciting area of development is radio and satellite tracking that is being carried out on hen harriers now and led to the discovery of Bowland Betty’s death. There is still so much we need to know about where harriers go once they leave their breeding areas, especially now that so few are fledging from England now (just 16 in the last 3 years). Understanding how much interaction there is between the various UK populations (especially as they are now becoming so few and far between) and what happens to harriers that don’t survive is critical in working to protect them and to catching their killers. The tragically short life of Bowland Betty highlighted both of these benefits. Although no harriers fledged in England this year, you can follow the progress of four fledglings from Langholm moor, just north of Carlisle over the border in Scotland at this page.

    Hope for the recovery of the English hen harrier is not lost. But everyone with a role in this magnificent bird’s recovery, and the more sustainable management of our uplands, will have to play their part to the full.

  • Big Wild "Sleep" Out

    This weekend, we're encouraging people to get out their tents and sleep in their garden, wild place or even RSPB nature reserve.  We're calling this our Big Wild Sleepout.  

    I am heading off with the family by train to the Pyrenees this weekend for a couple of weeks so won't be around.   But I didn't want to miss the fun, so, last weekend, up at our hut on the Northumberland Coast I thought that our tent deserved an outing.  My much loved two-man tent is probably 40 years old, was handed on to me by my Dad and in my twenties the tent and I spent many happy trips together, from camping inside of the crater of the extant Karthala volcano of Grande Comore to accompanying me on my coast to coast walk from St Bees Head to Robin Hood's Bay.

    To be honest, I've not had much use for the tent in recent years.  It gets put up in the garden every now and then and the boy did have his camping debut a couple of years ago in Wiltshire, but that's about it.  So, I was pleased to have a chance to pitch it on the eroding cliff outside our hut.  

    We're very lucky to have this hut - my father-in-law has been going on holiday there every year since he was a boy.  It's opposite Coquet Island and this weekend, the seabirds were in splendid form - gannets, gulls and terns were all very active, while young families of eider ducks bobbed up and down close to the shore.  Our preferred spot for playing cricket - rabbit hollow - was carpeted in self-heal and eyebright and provided a nice distraction as the boy behaved like a Kevin Pieterson wannabe, swatting me away to leg into the bracken.

    So after a great day in the sunshine and a bracing walk in the wind to Alnmouth and back, we settled down for our Big Wild Sleep Out.  The original plan was for the boy and the girl to share the tent and I would (rather boldly) bivouac.  My wife was content to sleep inside.  But Plan A rapidly turned into Plan B as the girl decided that she preferred to sleep in her bed indoors.  Understandable, but that now meant that I was inside the tent.  This was fine, except that I hadn't paid as much attention to the quality of the ground we were sleeping on.  By the time I had slipped inside the girl's sleeping bag, the boy was asleep and I was left with the sounds of nature and the bumps underneath.  I did briefly enjoy listening the plaintive call of the odd curlew and the raucous calling of oystercatchers, but it was not long before the noise of the wind took over and my attention focused on whatever was poking me in my back.  

    To cut a long story short, after a couple of hours of tossing and turning I gave up and went looking for my own bed.  I stumbled in, woke up my wife, explained that I was coming to bed.  She said, probably correctly, that I couldn't leave the boy outside on his own.  I was not listening, and so she went out to sleep with the boy instead.

    In the morning, I woke up, went looking for the family and was pleased to see the tent still up and a wife ready to mock my inability to last the night.  She correctly pointed out that someone that worked for an organisation that was promoting the joys of camping and communing with nature ought to be able at least to make it to midnight.  I countered by saying that I was delighted that all the family was able to share the experience of camping together.

    So, however you manage it this weekend, I strongly recommend you take part in Big Wild Sleep Out.  It'll be great - I promise.  And remember, if you are within walking distance of your bed, there is always Plan C.

    In the image below, you can spot a slightly tired wife, a girl pretending to have slept outside all night, my Dad's great tent, and if you look closely to the left of the picture on the horizon, Coquet Island.