May, 2012

Our work

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
  • Seeing the forests for the trees

    There are still a few things to resolve on birds of prey and their conservation.  But, I feel that, thanks to yesterday's announcement from the Minister, I can move on from buzzards and talk about something else.  That is a good thing.

    Today I am helping celebrate the 50th anniversary of the RSPBs fantastic Coombes Valley reserve in Staffordshire, which is a delightful oak woodland perfectly set up for enjoying our returning woodland migrants. This feels like a good opportunity to revisit another hot issue with the public - forests.

    Woodland at Coombes Valley RSPB reserve. Staffords. Copyright: Andy Hay (

    At the start of last year, forests, or more specifically public forests, were on everyone’s lips following Defra’s consultation about their future. I struggle to think of any other environmental issue that has prompted over half a million people to sign a petition and others to burn an effigy of Big Ben in the Forest of Dean, although perhaps buzzardgate was heading that way.  I wonder if David Cameron would consider this as “big society” in action?

    The public reared up and told the government to back off, which is exactly what it did after just 3  weeks, with the abandonment of the consultation. I think this sums up just how important woods and forests are to everyone. Nevertheless, we are not out of the woods yet – excuse the pun.

    Caroline Spelman subsequently set up an independent panel of experts to advise her on the future of forestry commission, the public forest estate and forestry policy in England. This is no longer just about the important 18% of public woods and forests, but also the other 82% in other ownerships.  This Panel includes my boss, Mike Clarke, in an independent capacity, and they aim to report on 4th July. It is a huge job, and we await with interest their findings.

    Is this just about who owns them?
    For some people, yes - but for us it is also about much more than that. When you take a closer look at our woods and forests, regardless of who owns them, it is clear that simply fighting for status quo will cause us to lose our woodlands in a very different way.  Lesser spotted woodpeckers – common when I was young - but we have since lost three out of four pairs and they are now cripplingly rare.  Woodland wildlife is not in a good way, with 1 in 6 woodland flowers threatened with extinction, a 56% decline in woodland butterflies, the loss of 9 out of 10 pairs of willow tit, 78% of lesser redpoll, the list goes on and on......

    What is the problem?
    Contrary to popular belief, this is not a problem that will be solved by planting more trees. Although woodland expansion does have an important role to play, and we are fully behind it, the evidence points to another problem. The evidence is telling us that the condition of existing woods is where the greatest problem for much of our threatened wildlife lies. For centuries we have used woods for food, shelter and warmth. However, as this woodland management culture has declined, so have the varied woodland structures that wildlife need.

    What do we want?
    The RSPB’s vision is for England’s woodland to be a haven for wildlife, whilst helping meet the challenge of climate change, be economically productive, and available for people to explore and enjoy.

    A future where:

    • Government revaluates the way they value woods and forests, so that they are no longer solely measured in terms of the timber they produce or their land sale value. Their full value lies in the wildlife, access and ecosystem service benefits they can provide to society
    • All woodlands are being appropriately and sustainably managed to provide rich and varied habitats to help reverse woodland wildlife declines.  
    • New markets, smartly regulated, have emerged to support a thriving and truly green forest economy
    • Woodland area is increasing sustainably to provide bigger, better and more joined up habitats for wildlife and local communities to enjoy, whilst contributing to climate change adaptation
    • An equal effort to that directed at new planting has been applied to reversing the planting mistakes of the past, with the restoration of heaths, bogs and ancient woodlands once under plantation forestry. Read more about this here
    • The Public Forest Estate is rededicated to the nation and becomes the epitome of what public land can deliver for society in the form of wildlife, access and natural heritage. 

    What do others think?
    The eyes of the nation, including ours, will be then be on the Government’s next move. A group that is also paying close attention is Our Forests who are an informal group of individuals with a shared set of core principles on the future of forestry. They have produced their own vision for the future of England’s woods and forests, which you can read here. I have and it is rather good.

    Our views have much in common with this vision. For example, we both want increases in sustainable woodland management, the restoration of wildlife habitats damaged by plantation forestry, and increased woodland expansion. Although our emphasis on the latter would be further towards that of quality rather than quantity, as we are still fighting mistakes of past planting drives.  Although we have slightly different rationale, we both agree that status quo is not the way forward and something new, building on best bits of the old is needed to realise the fuller value of woods and forests for the nation.

    Another excellent vision is from Plantlife, which you can see here.

    Most importantly of all, what do you think?

    Please do share your thoughts below. You can also submit your views direct to Our Forests’ on their vision here.

  • Public steps up for buzzards

    We have just heard that the Richard Benyon - the Wildlife Minister - has decided to drop proposals to licence the destruction of buzzard nests and to bring adult buzzards into captivity around shooting estates. 

    This is what the Minister has said:

    "In the light of the public concerns expressed in recent days, I have decided to look at developing new research proposals on buzzards.

    "The success of conservation measures has seen large increases in the numbers of buzzards and other birds of prey over the last two decades.  As Minister for Wildlife I celebrate that and since 2010 we have championed many new measures to benefit wildlife across England – set out in our England Biodiversity Strategy. 

    "At the same time it is right that we make decisions on the basis of sound evidence and we do need to understand better the whole relationship between raptors, game birds and other livestock. I will collaborate with all the organisations that have an interest in this issue and will bring forward new proposals.”

    We’re pleased the minister has listened to people’s concerns and acted in the public interest by cancelling this project. This is a strong decision, reflecting the nation’s desire to see Government protecting precious wildlife.

    I would like to thank all of you that made your concerns known to your MP and to Defra.

    It is clear that large swathes of the public celebrate the recovery of the buzzard after many decades of persecution.  We don’t want our taxes being spent on removing buzzards or destroying their nests and we shall continue to make the case to government that no bird of prey should be killed in the name of sport.

    As I have written in previous blogs, we don’t want anything to distract Defra from the pressing task of saving our threatened wildlife. It should be putting its limited resources into areas such as preventing the extinction of hen harriers in England.

  • Hawk in the Rain

    ...the hawk
    Effortlessly at height hangs his still eye.
    His wings hold all creation in a weightless quiet,
    Steady as a hallucination in the streaming air.
    While banging wind kills these stubborn hedges.

    A short exert from Ted Hughes’ poem ‘Hawk in the Rain’, but care to guess which species he was describing? Well you wont be helped by the fact Ted describes a hawk – its actually a falcon. Ted was clearly a better poet than he was a taxonomist!

    The bird he was describing was one of our most familiar birds of prey, the kestrel.  And this is another bird of prey in real trouble. 

    May of you will have seen the classic film Kes where a young boy raises a kestrel chick as an escape from his apparently grim up bringing. Now I could comment on the fact that taking a kestrel chick from a nest is illegal and could have landed young Billy in jail, but I think that would be rather missing the point of what is a great story of hope and man’s connection with nature.

    Mike Langman (

    Kestrels have always been that way. A symbol of freedom and escape as they hang effortlessly in the air, and they will be familiar to just about all of as a common sight over our motorways and roadside verges. It's one of the few birds that my kids can identify.  But it seems that they aren’t quite as familiar as they used to be. The latest Breeding Bird Survey data shows a significant decline of 28% in the UK since 1995, with an even steeper decline of 58% in Scotland. It looks like something is up for Kes.

    For many birds of prey, like the hen harrier, we know only too well what problems they face, but for the kestrel its a bit of a mystery. We really don’t know what’s causing these declines and until we find that out, it's difficult to do anything to reverse the declines. So this year we’re starting a new research project to look at possible causes of kestrel decline to give us a better idea of what we need to do.

    It just goes to show, birds of prey are always going to be vulnerable. Even the ones we think of as common can suddenly start to disappear if we turn our back momentarily. I was interested, and concerned, to see that our kestrel’s American cousin is also apparently crashing, down 47% in the last 45 years. Again, there doesn’t seem to be a clear answer to that most basic question, why?

    Hopefully the research we’re starting this year will give us the answers we need to begin to reverse the kestrel’s decline.

    When it comes to Defra's research budget, this seems as good a subject as any to invest some spare cash.

    We’re still fortunate to be able to see kestrels fairly regularly, but perhaps just that bit less regularly than a few years ago. Kestrels are certainly not yet on the brink, but conservation is as much about preventing species getting to the brink as it is saving those on the edge. Kestrels, as a bird of prey, will always be vulnerable and we cannot afford to take our eye off the ball (as I told my boy last night on the tennis courts). After all, it would be a modern tragedy if the kestrel’s story had the same tear jerking ending as in Kes.

    Let’s find out what we need to, to keep this symbol of hope a common sight in our skies!

    Have you noticed fewer kestrels on your travels? What do you think could be causing the declines?

    It would be great to hear your views.