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
  • More Good News for a Friday: Michael Gove backs ban on Neonicotinoid pesticides

    Yesterday’s decision from Environment Secretary Michael Gove to back the ban on neonicotinoid pesticides is not only good news for bees and other wild pollinators, but also for evidence-based policy.

    It’s been a long road to reach yesterday’s momentous decision: neonicotinoids have been in widespread use since the early noughties, and concerns began to emerge about their potential impacts on pollinators over a decade ago. Since then, scientists (including some working for the RSPB) have been working to unpick and better understand that impact, with hundreds of scientific papers published on the topic, aiming to close knowledge gaps and test whether their use has contributed to the widespread decline of pollinators observed across Europe. As more evidence has emerged suggesting that neonics are indeed harmful to wild pollinators, we have been working in collaboration with the Bee Coalition to support calls for a ban on their use. And as the body of evidence of their impacts has increased, such calls have become harder to ignore, as Michael Gove himself said yesterday...

    “While there is still uncertainty in the science, it is increasingly pointing in one direction. Not to act would be to risk continuing down a course which could have extensive and permanent effects on bee populations. That is not a risk I am prepared to take”.

    Rapeseed by Andy Hay (

    This story clearly demonstrates the need to invest in good science to inform policy and shape decision-making. The fact that the decision was so long in the making, however, highlights some key weaknesses in the current system: that concerns about potentially catastrophic impacts of a group of chemicals on wildlife are only addressed long after the chemicals have become established on the market and are in widespread use highlights a clear need to reassess the licensing process. This is a concern that was echoed by Defra’s Chief Scientist back in September.

    I hope that Mr Gove’s decision to show real leadership on neonicotinoids is an indication of Defra’s wider commitment to base future policy development on good science, because neonics and bees aren’t the only issue for which we have a solid and growing evidence base. For several decades, RSPB and others have been working to understand the causes of declines in other farmland wildlife, including farmland birds (>40% decline since 1970) and butterflies (>30%). The second State of Nature report, published in 2016, highlighted the evidence that policy-driven changes in agricultural management are a major cause of these declines.

    As well as understanding the causes of these declines, we have also worked with farmers to develop and test solutions. The UK has lead the way on agri-environment science, and there is a now a large and robust body of evidence as to “what works” for nature on farmland. From the work we have been doing on RSPB’s own Hope Farm, we have demonstrated that by making relatively small changes to management, you can make space for nature on a productive and profitable farm – resulting in a huge increase in farmland bird numbers.

    Support for the ban on neonics is an important step in the right direction, based on robust evidence, but as we leave the EU the government has a unique opportunity to reshape agricultural policy more widely and to support farmers to reverse the declines of farmland wildlife. I hope that Mr Gove continues to show leadership and to use evidence to inform his decisions, and seizes this chance to create positive change for farming, for nature, and for the wider environment.

    I’ll end today’s blog with a final quote from Michael Gove...

    “Ultimately we must ensure that we think about the long term health of our environment, because unless we take steps now to arrest environmental damage we will all be the losers. We only have one earth and it is our responsibility to hand it on to the next generation in a better state”.

  • Good news for a Friday: Global Migratory Species Convention agrees stronger protection and conservation measures for world’s wildlife

    A fortnight ago in Manila, the RSPB led a delegation from the BirdLife International Partnership (including partners from Australia, India, Paraguay, Philippines, Saudi Arabia and Spain) to the 12th Conference of the Parties (COP12) of the UN Convention on Migratory Species (CMS). This is the key mechanism by which countries can cooperate to save species that don’t respect national borders.  Below Principal Policy Officer, Nicola Crockford, who has been the driving force behind our work on this Convention, provides an overview of the outcomes. 

    David Tipling's fabulous image of two turlte doves - Europe's fastest declining migratory bird species

    With this meeting, the 38 year old Convention ‘came of age’ as THE global convention (alongside CITES, the Convention on Wildlife Trade) to provide comprehensive species conservation across national boundaries.  Attended by 1000 participants from 126 countries it was by far the biggest CMS COP ever.  Aligning itself as a means to support Parties to implement the “species” actions under the Sustainable Development Goals and the Global Biodiversity Goals (the Aichi Targets), in terms of the avian agenda, it focused on countries agreeing to take concrete actions to conserve some of the world’s most important migratory species, with the support of task specific intergovernmental groups established under CMS.

    BirdLife has been working since 2010 to secure support for a suite of actions to tackle the four biggest drivers of the decline of migratory birds: to eradicate illegal killing of birds including poisoning especially through law enforcement, to work with the energy sector to minimise impacts on birds, to conserve coastal wetlands (especially for coastal shorebirds which, together with African-Eurasian Vultures, are the most threatened group of terrestrial migratory birds in the world) and to work to ensure sustainable use of landscapes with a focus on the needs of migratory landbirds.

    Important decisions on these issues agreed at this COP included:

    • Countries agreeing to hold a workshop, jointly with the “UN Convention on Land” (the UN Convention to Combat Desertification) to examine how to deliver sustainable land use which benefit birds and people as an outcome of the 2016-2020 Programme of Work of theAfrican-Eurasian Landbirds Working Group (as established in 2011),
    • An innovative Scoreboard, under the Programme of Work of the Mediterranean Illegal Killing, Taking and Trade Task Force(which was set up in 2014) whereby Parties can assess progress in eradicating illegal killing (which should be of benefit to RSPB’s work in Cyprus);
    • Agreement to establish an equivalent Task Force on illegal hunting for the East Asian Australasian Flyway;
    • The establishment of a Task Group to ensure the global phase out of lead ammunition, under the Programme of Work of the Preventing Poisoning Working Group (established in 2011), together with agreement to work in concert with those conserving other taxonomic groups, such as African carnivores, which also suffer from poisoning.  
    • Agreeing to produce, under the Programme of Work of the Energy Task Force (as established in 2014) guidance assessing cumulative impacts of (renewable) energy and power line developments on migratory species, including beyond national borders;
    • Agreeing a new initiative, championed by the Philippines host, to establish a Global Coastal Forum, together with Ramsar and CBD, to be operational in 2019. This initiative will ensure protection of the top sites globally under the World Heritage Convention, development on global guidance on conservation and management of ‘Working Coastal Wetlands’ eg shellfisheries, aquaculture and saltpans, and a global initiative to support restoration of coastal wetlands;

    However, the most important agenda item for BirdLife at this meeting was the adoption of the multi-species action plan for the African-Eurasian Vultures (including working with the CMS groups on illegal killing, poisoning, energy and unsustainable land use), and the listing of 10 species of African and Asian Vulture on CMS Appendix I, giving them the highest level of protection.  This will strengthen intergovernmental engagement in the RSPB-led work on Saving Asian Vultures (SAVE).

    Other important decisions included:

    • Reawakening the CMS Central Asian Flyway Waterbird Action Plan that has been dormant more or less since its adoption in 2005, thanks to the leadership of India (who were very ably supported by our Indian partner, the Bombay Natural History Society).  This was the major flyway of the world that until now has lacked any concerted action, despite considerable threats;
    • A mandate for the adoption of the Turtle Dove action plan of which the RSPB has led the development under a BirdLife EU LIFE project
    • Finally, the COP has made itself a stronger tool for nature conservation by approving a review mechanism (where third parties or others can identify where a country is failing to meet specific commitments under CMS, enabling the Convention to support the Country to comply) and approving work to assess alignment of national legislation with Convention obligations

    This progress at COP12 is entirely in line with the aspiration for the RSPB, as part of the BirdLife Partnership, to deliver biodiversity conservation from local to global, as we have in fact, in practice been doing for years on each of these themes. 

    The next COP is to be hosted by India in 2020, in the run up to the Biodiversity Convention’s milestone COP in China towards the end of the year.

  • Good-ish news for a Friday: Michael Gove promises consultation on new arrangements to uphold environmental laws

    At the beginning of this week, I wrote that action was needed to address the environmental governance gap created by the UK decision to leave the European Union.

    I argued that If the UK Government wanted to be true to its promise not to weaken levels of environmental protection as it leaves the EU, it needed to ensure that the governance functions that we have as members of the EU are replaced at domestic level.

    In his statements to the Environmental Audit Committee this week (which I would encourage you to watch here), Environment Secretary Michael Gove definitely moved us one step forward but possibly one step back.

    Capercaillie - a protected species under the EU Birds Directive - displaying at RSPB's Abernethy nature reserve (photo credit: Dave Braddock

    It was reassuring to hear Mr Gove say that he will consult on a possible new body or bodies to enforce and uphold environmental laws once the UK is no longer a member of the EU.  The creation of such a body, if fully independent of government, furnished with adequate statutory powers and adequately resourced, will make a vital contribution to addressing the environmental governance gap that Brexit will create.  

    However, Mr Gove also appeared to dismiss the need for transfer of the overarching environmental principles (such as the polluter pays principle) into UK law.  A failure to bring these fundamental principles into law, but instead to rely on guidance will weaken the interpretation and use of these laws, and potentially undermine standards of protection for our wildlife, air, rivers and seas. 

    The stakes remain high: for over 40 years, European law has provided the cornerstone of the UK’s environmental legislation. This legal framework is currently relied on to protect the UK’s environment, with an estimated 80% of environmental policies in the UK currently shaped by EU law. If standards of protection for the UK environment are to be maintained when the UK leaves the EU,  it is therefore vital not only that all existing law is faithfully converted into UK law, but that the overarching and international principles that inform how this law is used to protect the environment are also brought into UK law, and that we create new governance arrangements and institutions to replace those we currently rely on to ensure their full and proper implementation.

    Mr Gove is doing us a service though by being open about his views and signalling his preferred direction of travel.  He is clearly listening to the arguments that we and other environmental organisations are making, but it is also clear that we have more to do to win all the arguments about how to make Brexit work for nature.