April, 2014

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
  • Tackling another of the four horsemen of the ecological apocalypse: non-native invasive species

    Europe’s 766 MEPs faced a vital environmental decision this week when they confronted one of the four horsemen of the ecological apocalypse (here). As I have written previously (here), across the world, invasive non-native species are wreaking havoc with native species, driving extinction and severely damaging economic interests. In Europe, we had a chance to take action to avoid some of this harm. After 10 years of spadework, MEPs have voted in favour for an EU Regulation on Invasive Alien Species. The RSPB, in common with many other conservation organisations, believed it was vital that the MEPs voted in favour. My colleagues with a special understanding of the issues posed by non-native species have been working to get the best agreement.

    The negotiated text is the result of a three-way compromise between the European Parliament, the EU member states and the Commission. Sadly, it is not all positive, but our lobbying has yielded significant improvements to previous proposals, including: the removal of a 50-species cap on the list of species of Union concern; provisions for species which are native to some parts of the EU, but invasive elsewhere; and the creation of a scientific advisory body.

    Pressures from certain industries, such as mink farming, for lifting the regulation for economic interests were resolved, and controlled licensing for certain activities using invasive species will be overseen by the Commission. However, some glaring gaps remain, such as the removal - under pressure from shipping interests - of any obligation to manage the dumping of many invasive non-native species (such as Carpet sea-squirt or American comb jelly) in the marine environment have used this pathway to become established.

    The new legislation is in line with decisions of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) on invasive species, and the Aichi Biodiversity Targets: our global commitment to halt biodiversity loss by 2020. Effective implementation will be key to its success, and this will be the focus of RSPB work on invasive species in the coming months. Our main tasks will be influencing the list of species to which the Regulation will apply, and making sure that the scientific body has the role and capacity to provide sound scientific input to the rapidly changing field of biological invasions.

    The issue of ballast water has been readily identified by the Environmental Audit Committee as an area where Government could do better. In the results of its inquiry on invasive species, published also this week, the Environmental Audit Committee welcomes the new EU legislation on invasive species, and recommends the UK ratify the 2004 International Convention for the Control and Management of Ships' Ballast Water and Sediments as a measure to reduce the chances of inadvertently bringing in marine invaders, including the eggs and larvae of larger organisms. We can only applaud this clear message from the committee, which might have a remarkable effect on a global scale – the Ballast Water Convention has been ratified by a sufficient number of countries (38), but for it to enter into force it is necessary that they cover 35 per cent of the world’s merchant fleet, it’s currently just over 30 per cent. Possibly, the addition of the nation’s important merchant fleet (16th largest in the world) could make that difference, as well as a significant contribution to the conservation of global biodiversity.

    Enjoy your break over Easter (I am heading north) - we can pick up the fight to deal with the other horsemen of the ecological apocalypse next week.

  • Migrants and the European Union: feedback from the Question Time

    I think it is fair to say that political hustings have become livelier since UKIP began to join panels about five years ago.

    Yesterday's event on the forthcoming European Parliamentary election was a case in point even though the chair, Camilla Cavendish of the Sunday Times, said that debate about the UK's membership of the EU was off limits.

    In his opening 3 minute pitch, the UKIP's environmental representative, Stuart Agnew MEP,  blamed raptors for the decline in songbirds, grey squirrels for the decline in most other species, said climate change was a complete sham and wind farms were destroying the economy.  I paraphrase a bit, but it was quite a speech.

    He did concede that the decline in bees might have something to do with the way we farm and that farmers should look to set aside land for managing wildlife.

    So it was good that there was something we could agree on.  After the event, Mr Agnew and I talked about predation and I promised to send him our latest scientific understanding of the impact on birds (which I have shared through this blog on many occasions).  With UKIP riding high at 31% in opinion polls, I am sure that we shall have another chance to discuss this issue.

    There was more common ground when I asked the panel about their views on Maltese spring hunting of migratory birds such as turtle dove.  Julie Girling MEP (Conservative) was pleased to be able to report on positive meetings with the Environment Commissioner Janez Potocnik where the promise was given to put more European Commissioners on the ground to monitor hunting on Malta.  

    The other MEPs on the panel, Linda McAvan MEP (Labour), Keith Taylor MEP (Green) and Chris Davies MEP (Liberal Democrats) seemed united on taking action on this issue and if elected it is reassuring to know that there will be a cohort of UK MEPs keen to exert their influence to end spring hunting in the Mediterranean once and for all.

    In fact, I was pretty impressed by the knowledge and track-record of the MEPs.  On issues as varied as climate change and energy security, CAP, CFP and neonicotinoids, the majority of the panel were able to explain what they had been doing in the European Parliament to secure positive outcomes for the environment and displayed genuine passion to do good.

    They all struggle to be visible to their electorate, despite their best endeavours - Chris Davies made the point that his constituency is as large as 13 of the EU's Member States.  And they all, rightly, bemoan, the lack of informed coverage of Europe in the media.  Camilla Cavendish, when put on the spot, did suggest that the complexity of the European processes did make it difficult to sell a story and also admitted that since the recession it has been a lot harder to run environment stories in the media.

    We won't give up trying to raise the profile of Europe and the environment.  We are planning further hustings events across the country in the run up to 22 May poll. We've also set up new webpages (here) outlining what we want to from candidates and videos of some of the spokespeople outlining what they are offering.  Next week, I shall explain how you can help get involved to make their your voice heard and vote count.

    Tomorrow, I shall return to the plight of the turtle dove.

  • Everyone Should Hear a Nightingale, Every Spring: a guest blog from Chris Rose

    Chris Packham has done a heroic job in supporting Birdlife Malta and raising the profile of the massacre that migrants face in Malta.   I want to keep a profile on our magnificent migrants and so today, Chris Rose (campaign guru and co-founder of the Fairyland Trust) celebrates the song of one of our best loved migrants, the nightingale. 


    Wouldn't it improve our quality of life, if every man, woman and child in the UK could hear at least one nightingale sing, every spring? If you agree, please sign my petition asking the BBC to broadcast nightingale song live, on May 18th here.   

    Perhaps Lord Reith, famous first leader of the BBC thought so, for on May 18th 1924, a singing nightingale in a Surrey wood (with a famous cellist playing along) was the centerpiece of the BBC’s first ever ‘Outside Broadcast’. It was by wireless of course,  and as any birdwatcher knows, there is little point in trying to see a nightingale but every point in making the effort to hear one.

    An estimated one million people tuned in to that first ‘OB’.  The BBC and the cellist, Beatrice Harrison, were deluged with 50,000 letters of appreciation. So popular was the nightingale broadcast that thousands of people joined organised trips to the Surrey woods to hear the birds, and the BBC repeated the broadcast each May, until it was stopped in mid-broadcast in 1942, during the Second World War.  The sound of that wartime bird, recorded but never trasnmitted, has the noise of RAF bombers gathering overhead, in the background.  It is one of the spookiest, most evocative things I have ever heard – listen here

    When May approaches, my thoughts always turn to making the trip to my nearest reliable singing nightingales at Salthouse Heath in Norfolk but there do seem to be fewer than when I lived there a decade or so ago. If true, that is not surprising: the BTO found that nightingales declined by over 50% between 1995 and 2008, and there are reasons to think they are in deep trouble.  Muntjac deer are munching through the thick undergrowth they favour, and like many other migrants which spend much of the year in Africa, their habitat is threatened by climate change, and wholesale land use change for agriculture.  In this country, even the Lodge Hill nightingale stronghold  in Kent is threatened by house building, while most all insect-eating birds are in decline, probably because of the pervasive and insidious effects of widespread pollution from neonicotinoids and other agri-poisons.

    So I think it is high time that the BBC, the great informer and relayer of British national passions and culture, re-instated the nightingale tradition, with another OB this May 18th.  If the BBC has trouble finding a singing nightingale in these depleted times, I feel sure that readers of this blog, if not the RSPB itself, will be up to the task of locating one, or several.

    Nightingales are not the harbingers of spring but the soul of spring, with us like swifts, for only a few months before departing from our shores but from not our hearts.  With the right conservation efforts, our landscape could once again be made much more nightingale-friendly and the lives of our children and theirs could be enriched by their song.  

    As David Attenborough said, “No one will protect what they don’t care about; and no one will care about what they have never experienced”.  A recording is not the same as the real thing, any more than a stuffed Dodo or Great Auk is a real bird.  But hearing a real nightingale live is a step closer to experiencing the magic, and who knows, perhaps the RSPB or others could organise gatherings for those who wanted to get closer to authentic nature, to quietly stand and listen to nightingales, just as our great grandparents did in the 1920s and 1930s.  If you want to encourage the BBC, contact anyone in the organisation that you know, or if you don’t know anyone, ask your local radio station or tv programme to set up a broadcast – the contacts are at www.bbc.co.uk

    You can read more about the nightingale broadcast here and sign the petition here

    Thank you

    Chris Rose


    I shall give you an update on Chris' petition and challenge to the RSPB next week.