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
  • Good news for a Friday: collaboration for the common good

    I have spent my whole career working in partnership with other organisations. 

    Coalition working is not always easy.  It takes time to align hearts, minds and resources of different individuals and organisation.  But get it right and the rewards (in terms of impact and enjoyment) can be enormous.

    Collaboration stems from the belief that we can achieve more together than we can as individuals.  What’s more, it is obvious that the challenge of humans living in harmony with nature is too big for any one organisation so it makes sense to work with others. 

    This week, we’ve been reaping the benefits of three of our most important partnerships… 

    …through SAVE (a consortium of like minded organisations including BirdLife International), we’ve developed a plan to recover the Asian vulture populations.  The latest manifestation of this collective endeavour was the first captive-reared release of white-rumped vultures in Nepal. And, in Bonn at the UN talks this month, working with our BirdLife partners, we continue to make the case for strong action to tackle climate change.  You can read updates about our work in Bonn here.

    …through GreenerUK, we have developed a shared vision* and policies for a Greener UK and this week in the debate about the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, parliamentarians across the political spectrum came forward with tangible proposals for how to make Brexit work for nature (see yesterday’s blog).   I do not believe that this would have been achieved without unity amongst and collective action from the environmental NGOs.  We need to translate political commitments into reality, but the confidence and optimism comes from knowing that the ideas and ambitions for GreenerUK are gaining political traction.

    …through a new coalition Rethink Nature**, we have forged a partnership with Natural England to save England’s most threatened species from extinction.  The HLF funded Back from the Brink project was launched this week and promises to save 20 species from extinction and benefit over 200 more through 19 projects that span England; from the tip of Cornwall to Northumberland.  This partnership is the culmination of many years of hard graft which united organisations committed to species conservation for the common good. 

    All images courtesy of my colleague Ben Andrew ( See if you can identify them all.

    None of these achievements could have been possible if the RSPB had chosen to work alone.  Our impact is massively enhanced by working with our brilliant partners.  This is why partnership working is now hardwired into the way that the RSPB does conservation.  It is also why I believe that our ability to collaborate well with others is a critical limiting factor in our ambition to restore nature.

    So on this cold, November Friday, here's a BIG THANK YOU to all our partners.  Together, we are making a world richer in nature.


    *A manifesto for a greener UK

    Greener UK believes that the people of these islands deserve a world-class environment: clean air, clear water, a stable climate, healthy seas, beautiful landscapes and thriving wildlife in the places we love.

    This is fundamental to the well-being and prosperity of our own and future generations.

    Yet today, nature is struggling. We are depleting our soils and water supplies, generating mountains of food and plastic waste, changing our climate and making the air in our cities dangerous to breathe. Our wild places are dwindling, and we face the sadness of once familiar animals and plants fading away from our gardens and countryside.

    This is a pivotal moment for the environment. We will need policies and investment that create thriving farming and fishing industries, working with the grain of nature to return our land, seas, lakes and rivers to good health. We will need to secure the benefits of existing environmental laws as we leave the European Union, and we will need an ambitious new Environment Act~, which aims not just to maintain but restore our natural commonwealth.

    Together, our organisations have a combined membership of 7.9 million people. We own and look after more than 500,000 hectares of precious countryside and green spaces, which we safeguard for the benefit of all who live and visit here. We are ready and willing to play our part in making our vision a reality, by working with communities, voluntary groups and the private sector to make local places better and to tackle global challenges like climate change.

    But it is also vital that governments and politicians lead. They must demonstrate their commitment to our shared inheritance through bold action at home, and renewed co-operation with our friends and allies in Europe and around the world.

    Together, we can restore nature and our natural resources in a generation.

    ~A new Act is required in England; new, separate Acts may also be required in the devolved nations.

    **Rethink Nature is a partnership of seven conservation charities Amphibian and Reptile Conservation Trust, Bat Conservation Trust, Bumblebee Conservation Trust, Buglife, Butterfly Conservation, Plantlife and the RSPB.


  • A comment on last night’s debate about the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill

    The European Union (Withdrawal) Bill is currently in what’s known as “Committee stage” in the House of Commons.  This is when MPs get to examine and debate the detail of the Bill.

    Yesterday, attention turned to the environment and there was an impressive exploration of the issues about which we have concerns (for example, see here) including:

    • embedding the environmental principles in the Withdrawal Bill,
    • ensuring that we don’t see a weakening of our environmental standards as we leave the EU
    • the governance gap.              

    It was particularly encouraging that Environment Secretary Michael Gove indicated support for a new Environment Act for England.  This is hugely significant as it would help provide much needed direction and certainty as to how we restore nature in a generation.  The Withdrawal Bill will hopefully bank the majority of EU environmental laws, while a new Environment Act can help build a stronger legal framework.

    Whilst commitment to give serious thought to new environmental legislation is welcome, it is vital that the UK Government takes forward such a commitment in this Parliamentary term to ensure that the issues are addressed before we leave the European Union.  We don't want a gap in either our environmental governance or our environmental standards and protections.

    This is why we will continue to work with politicians from across the political spectrum to propose amendments to the bill as it continues to progress through parliament.

    There is clearly a huge amount of work to do, but it was great last night to see the environment featuring so highly in the debate and to hear agreement from all parts of the House on the importance of environmental protections (including guiding principles and the need for robust environmental governance). I would like to particularly thank those MPs that used their voices for nature during the debate (which can be read here).

    There is still a long way to go before the Withdrawal Bill becomes an act.  The next big moment will be the debate on governance which is expected on day 6 of Committee stage sometime in December.

    Watch this space. 

  • Even more good news for a Friday: first captive-reared vultures released

    Yesterday was a momentous day in Nepal. Five captive-reared vultures were released back into the wild as part of the Saving Asian Vulture Programme (SAVE).  This is an important milestone in the programme established to try to reverse the catastrophic decline in white-rumped vultures, and two other species of Gyps vulture (long-billed and slender-billed) all Critically Endangered as a result of the use of a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug called diclofenac. This drug was, until recently, a very widespread treatment for sick cows. Meat of a dead, recently ‘diclofenac-dosed’ cow, is lethal to vultures and, being sacred, cows are not eaten but taken to carcass dumps and left for scavengers. Thus, one toxic cow can kill an awful lot of vultures.

    Released vulture on first flight (Rajendra Gurung BCN)


    SAVE, a partnership of NGOs and Governments, has worked hard over many years to secure a ban on veterinary use of the drug in the Indian sub-continent, find and test ‘vulture safe’ alternatives for livestock and establish a captive population to safeguard the species.  Our intention has been to rear these birds before releasing them into areas that are now safe.  These Vulture Safe Zones are identified where local communities are engaged in vulture conservation, and have agreed to swap diclofenac in pharmacies with the safe alternative meloxicam.

    And that’s why yesterday was so momentous. It is the first time we have released Critically Endanged captive birds in South Asia and is the latest step in the long journey towards recovery of these amazing birds. We’ll be tracking the released birds to see how well they survive and integrate with the wild population. If successful, our confidence will grow that it will be possible to bolster the wild population in diclofenac free zones.

    To find out more please read this blog from one of our scientists who recently visited the team in Nepal here and assisted with the catching and tagging of wild birds in the same area.