September, 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
  • Why European President Juncker has chosen the wrong path

    Being an environmentalist can, at times, feel like being a boxer on the ropes trying to evade punches flying your way.   In recent years, we've ducked a few punches (such as the first draft National Planning Policy Framework, the review of the Habitats Regulations and Thames Estuary Airport), but some have landed squarely on our jaw (Lodge Hill being the latest example where local socio-economic development needs threatens to trump nationally important nature).   

    Yesterday was another tough day and another punch seems to be coming our way.

    President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker announced his new team and set out his priorities for the next five years.  If you care about anything other than economic growth, his agenda makes miserable reading. You can read it here.

    He compounds this misery by setting his sights on the two most important pieces of legislation for nature and birds across the EU – the Birds and Habitats Directives.

    President Juncker made his intentions clear in a letter addressed to the new Environment/Fisheries Commissioner (here), in which he calls on the new Commissioner (Karmenu Vella from Malta) to focus on assessing the potential for merging the Birds and Habitats Directives into a “more modern piece of legislation.”  Be under no illusion, this is code for weakening the powers of the directives.  Some just hate the idea that legislation might force developers to think about alternatives or that they might have to compensate for any damage caused.

    As I have written previously (see here), the directives were not only designed to protect internationally important wildlife, but they were also born out of a sensible desire to prevent any one Member State gain competitive advantage by trashing the environment.

    The directives have served us well.  And we have evidence to back this up.

    In a ground-breaking paper published in Science (here), my colleague Paul Donald (et al) showed that the Birds Directive has successfully protected those species considered to be at most risk and in need of most urgent protection across the European Union and has made a significant difference in protecting many of Europe’s birds from further decline.  

    Andy Hay's iconic image of a bittern - just one of the species that have benefited from protection thanks to the Birds Directive

    Any nation that has signed up to halting the loss of biodiversity and beginning its recovery by 2020 should celebrate the role the Directives can play.  It is deeply unhelpful that the European President seems to have forgotten that the EU (as well its Member States) signed up to this commitment.

    There is also growing evidence of the benefits to humans that protected nature provides. The EU Nature Directives are responsible for the UK’s modern SSSI system – 80% of which underpin and are essential to the effective management of Natura 2000 sites.  Evidence suggests that SSSIs generates benefits 8 times the investment in maintaining them.  Such sites makes an immense contribution to the wellbeing of the millions of people who visit them each year.

    There is, however, no evidence that they place a "ridiculous cost on business" as George Osborne infamously said in 2011 and no evidence that economic prosperity has been damaged by the Directives.  The fact that some companies have failed to respect the Directives but then failed to get what they want is no reason to unpick them.

    RSPB’s experience on the ground is that businesses that take the time to respect and understand environmental legislation experience little or no impact on their activities. Indeed CEMEX, a global leader in the building materials industry, has publicly stated (see here) “The EU Birds and Habitats Directives provide an appropriate and effective legal instrument for the conservation of biodiversity in Europe and an appropriate framework for the development of extractive activities in harmony with nature.”

    The Birds and Habitats Directives together represent perhaps the best tests of genuinely sustainable development. They are effective at protecting Europe's threatened wildlife, they are flexible, they have public support, and smart businesses have learnt to respect them. Yet it seems that Jean-Claude Juncker wishes to ignore this by attempting to merge the Directives.

    We fear that, in the current economic climate, a merger would result in lesser protection and the time it takes to negotiate new laws would be a terrible distraction from implementing the existing laws so that nature begins to recover to favourable conservation status - the original aim of the legislation.   

    Our challenge to the new Environment/Fisheries Commissioner is not to play around with a merger. Instead, he should obsess about meeting the 2020 target, recognise that the Nature Directives offer the best legislative tool to achieving that and use his voice for nature across the Commission.  

    There is a lot at stake.

    Get it wrong and the EU’s credibility on the global stage as a world leader in environmental protection would suffer.

    Get it wrong and public support for the EU itself could also erode. Recent polls show that 95% of Europeans feel the environment is important to them, and 77% agree that EU legislation is necessary to protect the environment. Public reaction to scrapping effective protection for nature is likely to be extremely negative.

    And, get it wrong and Europe’s prosperity could be at stake.  We know that a healthy natural environment underpins our economy - a degraded environment would diminish the quality of life for Europe citizens and would be a betrayal of our children's future.  

    The good news is that the environment sector intends to behave like Mohammed Ali in his rumble in the jungle with George Foreman.  We might take the odd punch, but we will not be floored and we will come out fighting. 

    That fight-back started yesterday when the ten large European NGOs (including Birdlife International) shared their anger in a letter to President Juncker (see here).  He would be wise to heed our words, or he could have civil society on his back for years to come.
    What do you think of President Juncker's new agenda?
    It would be great to hear your views.
  • The battle of Lodge Hill part 7: Medway’s decision means a call to arms

    Bad news I am afraid.

    Followers of this blog will know that the RSPB has been campaigning to stop a development of 5000 houses on Chattenden Woods and Lodge Hill SSSI.

    This ex-MOD training ground is home to a nationally important population of nightingales (possibly the most important site in the UK for this iconic and declining species), as well as ancient woodland and rare grassland.

    Last night, Medway Council made the decision to approve the application from Land Securities, MoD’s delivery partner.

    The vote to approve the development goes against the advice of Natural England, the government’s own environmental advisors, as well as a raft of conservation organisations.

    It's a shocking decision.

    If the development goes ahead it would destroy the SSSI including the home to more than 1% of our national nightingale population.   Worse - it would set the terrible precedent for future development.  Under the terms of the National Planning Policy Framework (clause 118), there is a presumption against building on SSSIs - our most important wildlife sites.  The public benefits from the development need to significantly outweigh the environmental damage.  Houses which are important locally must not trump nationally important wildlife sites. 

    Nightingale singing. Image by John Bridges (

    The Secretary of State, Eric Pickles, can ‘call in’ the application and make the decision himself with the national perspective it needs. In effect this would take the decision out of Medway’s hands, and allow it to be made through the rigorous process of a public inquiry.

    We’ll be reminding him that if the development goes ahead, it will be one of the largest losses of SSSI land in the country - perhaps the biggest loss since the mid-1990s.   This is not what we’d expect from ‘the greenest government ever’.  Not only that, but it would be contrary to the Government’s own guidance on developing protected sites.

    It is clear that Medway is in need of housing and employment, but these needs should be assessed through a thorough strategic review. Reliance on a single proposal at Lodge Hill is not the answer to providing a sustainable long-term solution.

    Please help us tell Eric Pickles why this decision matters across England, and ask him to call it in.  You can do so here.

    You can catch up with the whole history of the case on our Lodge Hill web pages.

  • Social research is good for you - most of the time

    I was very fortunate to spend Monday at Minsmere.  Someone within the RSPB had the fine idea of encouraging Board Directors to 'volunteer' for the day.  My prize was to contribute to some social science research designed to help us improve the experience of visitors to our nature reserves.  So while Environment Secretary Rt Hon Liz Truss MP was giving her conference speech (see transcript below) and while Karmenu Vella was being grilled by MEPs to assess his suitability for appointment as Environment Commissioner (more on this later in the week), I was standing around with a clip-board trying to find someone to talk to.

    With Cetti's warblers for company, I was pleasantly surprised that people didn't mind being asked a few questions about why they were out and about.  Not surprisingly, apart from a very well behaved school group, the vast majority of those I saw were those with time on their hands - mainly retired folk having a wonderful day in a beautiful place.  "Everyone knows Minsmere is the best reserve in the country" said one, "that's why I am here".  I know 209 RSPB site managers who might disagree, but it was good to see the reserve busy even in mid-week.

    My companion for the day courtesy of David Tipling

    The RSPB has often dabbled in the dark arts of social science especially to help us understand what our members want and how we can inspire more support.  I say dark arts, simply because I was trained as a natural scientist and I was rarely exposed to social science.  

    Yet, it was only this year that we employed our first social scientist.  We did this in response to the independent review of our science which had been led by Professor Sir John Lawton.  In his conclusions, he was clear that we needed to embrace social science to improve our understanding of people's behaviour and to demonstrate how nature is important to human wellbeing.  It made sense to me.  We say we want to influence change in policy, legislation, attitudes and behaviour.  We know that you cannot rely on the power of ecological evidence alone to win an argument or effect change.  If it was that simple, then there would have been no badger cull, farmers would all be including skylark plots in their arable fields and the Ministry of Defence probably wouldn't be proposing to build houses on the nation's finest nightingale site.

    Maybe we don't need the research.  Last night at a fringe meeting hosted by the RSPB and the Wildlife Trusts, Liz Truss said that "we all depend on nature whether we are from urban or rual backgrounds".  We need nature for food, for shelter, for energy and yes for inspiration.   There is growing evidence of the importance of contact with nature for both our mental and physical health and, next week, we expect the Institute of Health Equity at University College London will publish a summary of this evidence.  The more we understand the importance of nature to us as humans, the less likely we are to so easily trade it away and the greater chance that we shall invest to protect it.

    So, we are exploring how social science can help us and I hope, over time, it adds an extra string to our bow.  For me, while I felt better having spent a day at Minsmere listening to Cetti's warblers, I may not be allowed to get hold of a clipboard again - one unlucky interviewee whacked his head on a sign probably trying to escape from me.  I think I should stick to the day job...


    Rt Hon Elizabeth Truss MP speech to Conservation Party Conference 2014


    I have to confess that I was both delighted and surprised…

    ….. when the Prime Minister offered me this role.

    I was delighted…because I love the countryside.

    I represent one of the most productive agricultural areas of the country in the fine

    county of Norfolk….

    …..and I am infatuated with British food.

    But I was also surprised to be appointed because I have so much in common with

    ..... Ed Miliband.

    We both grew up in left-wing households.

    We both have parents who are academics.

    His father talked about Marx and Trotsky over the dinner table.

    My mother took me on protests.

    I went on marches.

    I made banners.

    I went to peace camps.

    For me, it wasn’t ballet or My Little Pony.

    Instead, it was saving the planet…..and the CND.

    The most useful thing I learned…..was how to make myself heard in a crowd.

    Which I still make plenty of use of today.

    But while Ed stayed with the predictable Left Wing Establishment.

    I, Conference, became a rebel.

    I became a CONSERVATIVE.

    And I rebelled for 3 reasons.
    Because I believe that you can shape your own destiny.

    Because I believe people should succeed on merit.

    And as a practical Yorkshire girl….

    I believe in not just talking

    ……. But in getting things done….

    And, when it comes to the Environment, the Labour Party have always been good at


    While we’ve been really good at doing.

    It was a Conservative who pointed out that CFCs were damaging the ozone layer.

    It was a Conservative who championed international efforts to ban them.

    It was a Conservative who signed the Treaty phasing out their use.

    And the name of that Conservative was Margaret Thatcher.

    The ozone layer is getting better and we’re now leading international efforts to

    tackle climate change.

    We have cleaned up almost 10,000 miles of river and improved our beaches.

    Numbers of important birds like the linnet and the goldfinch are on the rise.

    We are planting a million trees and over 20,000 acres of woodland.

    Our defences against flooding are being upgraded to make them more robust.

    We are spending £3.2 billion – half a billion more than the last government – better

    protecting 165,000 houses and 580,000 acres of farmland.

    We are constantly vigilant.

    All this means that families can enjoy clean rivers and beaches…

    …..and have peace of mind in their own homes….

    ….. while children get to know the sound of birdsong in our woods and meadows.

    This is not about targets or turbines.

    It’s about real improvements…..

    …….practical conservative environmentalism…

    ….. where a strong, healthy environment….

    … a core part of a strong, healthy economy. And our Long Term Economic Plan.

    And that is exactly what our farmers and food producers need.

    Just like our country…

    ….there once was a time that our food was in decline.

    We had an inferiority complex about our traditional dishes.

    We’d lost pride in our country…

    …..and we’d lost pride in our food.

    The amount of British Food we consumed and produced went down.

    The last Labour government…

    ….tied our farmers up in red tape….

    …… wasted £600 million on EU fines ….

    ……..and left us with the worst bovine TB problem in Europe.

    The fact is: Labour don’t care about the countryside.

    They think that we can’t grow enough of our own food.

    They think that we can just outsource it.

    Well they are wrong.

    Decline is not inevitable.

    Under this government, food and farming is one of our biggest success stories.

    It’s our largest manufacturing sector….

    …….bigger than aerospace and car production put together.

    Modern farming is not about shire horses and steam.

    It’s about systems and satellites.

    At every stage of the supply chain there is cutting edge technology….

    ….whether it’s GPS in tractors

    …..automated celery rigs

    …… or Sainsbury’s employing an army of coders.

    That’s probably why it’s one of the fastest growing areas for entrepreneurs.

    We’re helping producers compete by slashing red tape and opening up public


    ….as well as nearly 600 new overseas markets – thanks to the hard work of my

    predecessors Owen Paterson and Caroline Spelman.

    Our exports have increased by more than £1 billion in the past four years.

    And the results are superb.

    We are growing wheat more competitively than the Canadian prairies.

    We’re producing more varieties of cheese than the French.

    And we are even selling tea to China.

    Yorkshire Tea.

    When it comes to British food and drink….

    ……we have never had it so good,

    As well as exporting our fantastic food abroad, I want to see more British food sold

    in Britain.

    Two-thirds of the apples and nine-tenths of the pears that we eat are imported.

    Not to mention two thirds of the cheese.

    And that is a disgrace.

    From the apple that dropped on Isaac Newton’s head to the orchards of nursery


    …..this fruit has always been a part of Britain.

    I want our children to grow up enjoying the taste of British apples as well as

    … Cornish sardines, Norfolk turkey, Melton Mowbray pork pies, Wensleydale

    cheese, Herefordshire pears……. and….of course… black pudding.

    Under a Conservative majority government, I want Britain to lead the world in food,

    farming and the environment.

    In a fortnight I will be in Paris at the world’s largest food fair…

    ….bigging up British products.

    In December, I’ll be in Beijing negotiating new markets for pork.

    I am determined that our farmers and producers will have access to more markets

    both at home and abroad…

    …..generating jobs and security for millions.

    I am determined to press ahead restoring habitats,

    ….cleaning rivers

    ….and improving the quality of our atmosphere…..

    ….so that future generations can breathe clean air and enjoy the countryside.

    I am determined that our flood defences will be always be strong enough to protect

    us against the ravages of a changing climate.

    And I will not rest until the British apple is at the very top of the tree.