October, 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
  • Grouse shooting: three positions

    Following yesterday's blog, I thought it might be useful to expand on the three different perspectives regarding the future of grouse shooting.

    Here are the quotes will appear in this autumn's issue of Nature's Home magazine.  They offer three different way forward.  I encourage you to read the full article when/if the magazine arrives on your doorstep.

    Dr Mark Avery, Wildlife writer and organiser of the Hen Harrier Day event in the Peak District

    Driven grouse shooting has been a peculiarly British pastime for only about 200 years and we’d be better off without it. Banning it would mean more wildlife, better water quality, more soil carbon and fewer floods. Grouse shooting is an intransigent industry and licensing would be costly and ineffective. It is time to ban driven grouse shooting; if you agree, please sign atepetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/65627

    James Robinson, Head of Nature Policy, RSPB

    Important wildlife sites are being damaged or destroyed by the poor management of many driven grouse moors, and birds of prey continue to be disturbed and persecuted. Self regulation has failed, so the RSPB is asking for a robust licensing system. Those who breached conditions would have their licenses removed. Law-abiding grouse shoots would benefit from improved public confidence. You can follow RSPB policy at rspb.org.uk/martinharper

    Amanda Anderson, Director, the Moorland Association

    Grouse moor managers work hard to protect our uplands. Careful burning is vital for biodiversity, and we are involved in innovative techniques to restore healthy deep peat. We are also committed to sustainable growth in harrier numbers as part of Defra’s Hen Harrier Joint Recovery Plan (epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/67527). Many moors are designated as protected areas, so everything we do is under consent already. Further red tape could stifle our recent progress.

    What do you think about these three perspectives?

    It would be great to hear your views.

  • Say it ain't so, Beefy

    It's a sad day when your childhood hero, whose picture hangs in your downstairs loo, attacks the organisation you work for and whose mission you care passionately about.  But, remarkably, Sir Ian Botham (who owns a shoot) has joined forces with others from the shooting community to launch a complaint to the Charity Commission regarding the RSPB's expenditure on fundraising as opposed to nature reserves.

    When I saw the website that Sir Ian is fronting, I thought someone had hacked into his internet account again.  Have a look for yourself here.  You will quite quickly realise that this is not one of Beefy's infamous in-swinging yorkers that did for Rod Marsh et al in his devastating spell at Edgbaston in 1981*.  There's a lot of nonsense written and some of it is actually quite funny - wondering why, for example, we don't spend more time promoting chickens.   I think our charitable objects may stop short of permitting us to do chicken conservation.

    But, before anyone dismisses this as a Botham long-hop, I am reminded that he managed to pick up quite a few wickets with his bad deliveries.

    Any complaint to the Charity Commission, even if motivated by the fact that we have hardened our position on grouse shooting, deserves to be taken seriously.

    The central charge is that only 24% of our charitable expenditure is on nature reserves and, in an outrageously lazy slog-sweep aside, that our reserves aren't any good for birds. Really?

    Abernethy - one of 210 fabulous nature reserves (Andy Hay, rspb-images.com)

    The RSPB is 125 years old this year.  Throughout our history, we've always campaigned to change policy, legislation, attitudes, and behaviour.  Yes, we started to acquire nature reserves in 1930 (Cheyne Court, Romney Marsh - yes, Romney not Rodney) and we now have the responsibility of looking after 15,000 species on 210 nature reserves across more than 150,000 hectares.   We're proud of the work that we do on our reserves and I reject any suggestion that our dedicated team of staff and volunteers are 'ineffective'.  

    Yet, we've never believed that our nature reserves - brilliant as they are - will ever be sufficient to save threatened wildlife on their own.  How can they be when they only cover 0.6% of the UK surface area?  You we can't save nature by putting a fence around reserves and hoping the remaining 99.4% will take care of itself.  

    On the day that we hear of Beefy's attack, the UK Government also reported (see here) on progress of the wild bird indicator: woodland birds down 28% since 1970, seabirds down 24% since 1986, and farmland birds are now at their lowest level down 55% since 1970.  We care about these declines, we want to do something about them and we know that we cannot rely on nature reserves alone.

    Cirl bunting: a bird that we have, through working with farmers, helped to bring back from the brink (Andy Hay, rspb-images.com)

    I am sorry Beefy, but that means we will spend money on researching why species are declining, we will work out what needs to be done to help them, we will work with farmers to advise them on how to manage their land for wildlife, we will save special places by fighting inappropriate development and yes, heretical it may be to some, we will seek to influence governments to change policy.  And you know what, we will continue to try to grow the market of people that are interested in nature conservation - the motivation behind our Giving Nature a Home advertising - or, through Vote for Bob, to urge politicians to give nature a fair showing in their manifestos.  The threats to the natural world are so great that we have to use modern techniques to ensure nature's voice is heard.

    We've done this for 125 years and we plan to continue.  Our members will expect nothing less.

    And if you keep bowling us long hops, we'll crash them to the boundary.  And, if you continue to slur us, we'll get our own Bob Willis to bowl at you.


    *If you don't know your cricket, Edgbaston was the second of the three tests in the 1981 Ashes series where Sir Ian was named man of the match for his match-winning spell of 5 wickets for 1 run in 28 balls.  You can watch it again here.

  • Sky may have fallen, but Hope is not lost

    When I started this job in 2011, I was surprised to be repeatedly asked whether the RSPB was obsessed with birds of prey.

    At the time, I found it odd - of course our conservation work included action to recover threatened birds of prey such white-tailed eagle, red kite and hen harrier. But we were equally obsessed about declines in farmland birds, woodland birds and seabirds.

    Our strategy was clear - we did whatever nature needed. We saved special places through our reserves and had an amazing track-record of fighting inappropriate development and winning. We worked with farmers to help them manage their land with wildlife in mind and with fishermen to help them catch fish rather than seabirds. And, we worked with others to influence change in policy and legislation to benefit wildlife.

    Yet, it is true that there are few issues that trigger such an emotional response as the illegal killing of birds of prey. Last week (see here), a gamekeeper in Norfolk was convicted of poisoning at ten buzzards and a sparrowhawk and we heard (here) that police in Aberdeenshire were investigating the death of another six buzzards.

    It was right that the National Gamekeepers' Organisation condemned the action in Norfolk. We need shooting organisations to take a tough stance and stamp out illegal activity. The illegal killing of birds of prey has no place in 21st Century Britain and it is an outrage that some bad apples continue to break the law to protect a shootable surplus of game birds - the 50 million pheasants that are released into our countryside each year and, in the hills, red grouse.

    And this brings me back to the hen harrier and the latest news about this year's breeding season in England. The unusually mild and long summer brought brief hope last month when we were celebrating the return of four breeding pairs of hen harriers to the uplands of England and the successful fledging of 16 chicks. It was a small shift in the right direction. Sadly, the halcyon days of late summer came to an abrupt end when we heard of the loss of two birds which had been named Hope and Sky. We do not know how they died - it is just possible that they were predated, but they may have been illegally killed.

    As we await the results of post-mortem analysis for another three of the fledglings, we are left hoping our remaining tagged birds stay out of harm’s way and wondering what fate that lies ahead for hen harriers as a breeding species in England. We may never find out what happened to Sky and Hope, or the many other tagged birds which have mysteriously gone missing over the years.There are many challenges to detecting bird of prey persecution in the uplands but our dedicated investigators will continue to work with the police to catch criminals.

    In the autumn issue of Nature’s Home magazine which mails this week, our 'Big Debate' asks whether grouse moor shooting should be regulated. My predecessor, Mark Avery, is featured calling for a ban, Amanda Anderson of the Moorland Association argues for a focus on innovation and change from within the grouse shooting community, while my colleague James Robinson makes the case for licensing.

    I look forward to hearing the response from our members.

    Forest of Bowland by Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)

    Our desire for tougher regulation is motivated not just by concern for birds of prey but by the state of our moors, many of which are of recognised to be of European importance through their designation as Special Protection Areas under the 'much-loved' EU Birds Directive.

    We want to see an end to burning on deep peat - the scale of which has been exposed by our investigation of the Walshaw case (here) which is the subject of a legal challenge we have made to the European Commission. Burning on deep peat was back in the spotlight last week after the publication of new evidence from the EMBER project (here). We want to introduce licensing of driven grouse shooting to stop the killing and routine disturbance of birds of prey and unsustainable burning which continue to tar shooting as a sport. It has failed to do so for many years and whilst we remain engaged in long-running talks to secure a plan to save hen harriers, the wider issues of bird of prey persecution and unsustainable upland management remain unsolved.

    We think it is time for a statutory licensing system based on effective principles, which could ensure that some beneficial practices of grouse moor management continue. Licensing has the potential to fund better inspection and enforcement and add sanctions that could provide a genuine deterrent to those committing wildlife crime and ensure their employers no longer get away with turning a blind eye.

    I am delighted to admit that the RSPB is obsessed about saving nature. We always have and always will be.

    It is thanks to organisations like the RSPB that we can now enjoy seeing buzzards, red kites and white tailed eagles in the UK where they were once eradicated.

    We'll work with anyone to ensure that we are the generation that halts the decline in wildlife. Which is why we will continue to work with young gamekeepers - some of whom joined us at the National Lottery Awards (here) to celebrate the success of our Skydancer programme- to ensure modern gamekeeping works with conservationists to save species like the curlew and hen harrier.

    I have hope and confidence that we can and will change attitudes and hen harriers will once again fly safely above our English moors.