My passion for wildlife was stimulated in my teenage years, mainly thanks to my Mum (a biology teacher) who made me look at the world differently and being inspired by writers such as Paul Colinvaux. This early interest developed into biological research in my 20s, when I did practical conservation work in places such as the Comores and Mongolia.
Today, any free time I have I spend pottering around the flatlands of East Anglia or escaping to our hut on the Northumberland coast looking for wildlife and castles with my wife and children.
I studied Biological Sciences at Oxford and Conservation at UCL, and worked at Wildlife and Countryside Link before spending five years as Conservation Director at Plantlife.
I joined the RSPB as Head of Government Affairs in 2004, became Head of Sustainable Development in 2006, before becoming Conservation Director in 2011.
Over the past few weeks, the RSPB's position on Defra's draft Hen Harrier Action Plan has been misinterpreted by a number of people through the media and a lot of guff has been written about us. There is no sign that this campaign against us will stop. We therefore thought it timely to lay out our position in full. So, for avoidance of doubt, here is what we think about the Hen Harrier Action Plan...
The RSPB's position on the Hen Harrier Action Plan
The failure of any hen harriers to nest successfully in England in 2013 led the RSPB to call for a concerted plan of action. We have consistently supported the development of an effective Hen Harrier Action Plan that will lead to the recovery of the hen harrier population across suitable habitat in England.
Andy Hay's wonderful image of a male Hen Harrier (rspb-images.com)
We have been working with the Hen Harrier Sub-group of Defra’s Upland Stakeholder Forum to develop an agreed Hen Harrier Action Plan and have set out our position publicly through, for example, this blog (I, ii).
We support Actions 1-4 in the draft Plan (monitoring populations, diversionary feeding, analysing monitoring information and building the intelligence picture, and nest and winter roost protection) and are supporting the delivery of some of the elements of the plan through our new LIFE+ project (iii). The RSPB is investing £900k into harrier recovery measures to deliver the public benefit. We think Action 5, lowland reintroduction, needs to be fully assessed against IUCN guidelines and statutory requirements, and we do not believe it is an appropriate action in the short term.
The RSPB does not currently support Action 6, so-called brood management, and our reasoning and concerns are set out below. We are convinced that work should start now on the bulk of the plan and that brood management should be subject to further consideration and wider consultation.
What we think about brood management
Brood management involves removing hen harrier broods from driven grouse moors once breeding numbers have reached a density beyond which they would expect to impact significantly on numbers of red grouse for shooting.
The RSPB believes brood management may merit experimental investigation in the future, but only once hen harrier numbers have recovered to a pre-agreed level and less interventionist approaches, particularly diversionary feeding, have been widely attempted.
We know that hen harrier numbers would recover naturally in absence of illegal persecution (iv). So we believe our attempts to work with the grouse shooting community to develop a new toolkit to manage the conflict between the hen harrier and red grouse is a positive approach, with brood management as an option for the future, is a positive approach.
We have asked Defra to open the draft brood management proposals to wider consultation including the public. The consideration of brood management poses a number of questions, the answers to which are in the public interest and demand further discussion:
Questions on legal issues1. What legal mechanism is being considered to allow for the licensing of brood management under the provisions of the EU Birds Directive?
2. Under the Habitats Regulations, why has an appropriate assessment of brood management not been required given that it is likely to operate in Special Protection Areas for which the hen harrier is a qualifying feature?
Questions on alternative solutions3. If the scheme is deemed legal, why don’t we wait until some recovery of the population, at least until it reaches a point where it causes national economic concerns to grouse moors and where alternative solutions are deemed impracticable, before introducing a trial of brood management?
4. With disease control leading to increasing red grouse abundance and cessation of population cycles, how will we know when the time is right to impose a brood management scheme, i.e. how will we establish whether the problem is serious given that the current model for assessing impact was developed some years ago (v)?
5. With regional variation in grouse productivity and survival, how will the model for assessing the impact of hen harrier predation be used at different temporal and spatial scales?
6. Why won’t there be a requirement for diversionary feeding to be widely attempted before a brood management trial is introduced?
7. Why hasn’t Defra considered lump sum compensation to estate owners and workers where harrier numbers reach levels which make management for grouse shooting un-profitable, seeing this as a payment for the production of a public good?
Questions on logistics8. How many harriers will be housed in aviaries as the scheme develops and what is the preferred ratio of natural and housed broods to secure delivery along the population growth trajectory suggested in the draft Action Plan?
9. How many hen harriers will be tolerated in the wild under a brood management scheme and what happens if that threshold is passed?
10. Who will be legally responsible for the harriers in captivity and what will happen in the event of wild harriers becoming ill or dying in captivity?
11. When will a decision be taken to progress with brood management in an area during the nesting period and who will make it?
12. Where will the aviaries be located to house chicks and what specifications will they need to meet?
13. Who will provide training for those licensed to keep the birds in captivity and how will they be recruited?
14. Who decides which nests go into captivity (and which don’t) and will there be an appeal process if an estate believes it is being penalised for carrying a brood(s) not taken into captivity?
15. Under what form of regulation will an appeal process take place, who will undertake the appeal and how long would it last?
Residual risks16. What happens to the remaining adults (and their broods) on the moors if they lay a replacement clutch or they move to an adjacent estate and lay a clutch?
17. What happens to the scheme in the event of an illegal persecution event on any one of the participating estates?
18. What happens when fledglings are released back to their natal moor, or return there from alternative release sites, and cause disturbance to grouse shoots?
19. How will the scheme help to tackle the persecution of other raptors which are being restricted to settle in the uplands by criminal acts?
20. What level of public support is there for brood management?
21. If a scheme is permitted, would Defra consider a scheme for other threatened species that pose an economic disadvantage to individual landowners?
22. What would happen if the recovery trajectory is not being followed and brood management does not secure the recovery demanded?
Questions on costs and funding23. How much could a full brood management scheme cost (given that the English population could reach c.340 pairs (vi) to operate and who will be responsible for paying?
24. How much is the state prepared to contribute to a brood management scheme?
25. Who will administer, regulate and monitor the scheme and how will this element be funded?
Despite brood management not being necessary for hen harrier recovery, shooting organisations have asked for a trial of brood management to begin immediately to manage a perceived threat to individual estates. This has been characterised as a necessary condition to gain buy-in by individual estates ahead of any meaningful recovery of the hen harrier population. We reject this analysis given the current ebb to which the English hen harrier population has been reduced, recovery is a prerequisite for brood management.
The current brood management proposals are based on system used in France and Spain to manage impact of harvesting on nesting Montagu’s harriers. In these cases, the key threat is nest destruction during harvest (a legal agricultural operation) rather than illegal persecution. The capacity of similar proposals to address the key factor preventing population recovery for hen harriers - which is illegal persecution - may be limited.
What we now think about the future of the Action Plan
Calls for immediate publication of the Action Plan, which has yet to be agreed, have also been made by some Sub-group members. We have received criticism from some that we have been ‘holding up’ the process yet we believe our concerns are entirely valid and in the public interest to be answered.
We support publication and implementation of a joint Action Plan that adopts Actions 1-4 and investigates Action 5 more rigorously to identify how a suitable lowland reintroduction could be delivered. However, we believe the proposal for a controversial trial of brood management should be discussed in public at this stage and we will not support Action 6.
We have suggested that Defra publishes a) the agreed and workable elements of the Hen Harrier Action Plan and b) the contentious brood management element of the plan as a discussion document to allow the public to challenge the proposals before it goes any further. We believe this is a reasonable approach.
i http://www.rspb.org.uk/community/ourwork/b/martinharper/archive/2014/07/24/what-the-rspb-thinks-about-the-proposed-defra-hen-harrier-action-plan.aspxii http://www.rspb.org.uk/community/ourwork/b/martinharper/archive/2014/08/20/reply-to-gwct-letter-to-the-times-on-grouse-moor-management.aspxiii http://www.rspb.org.uk/news/details.aspx?id=384270iv Etheridge et al. 1997. Journal of Applied Ecology 34: 1081-1105.v Fielding et al. 2010. A conservation framework for hen harriers in the UK. JNCC Report 441.vi Elston et al. 2014. Journal of Applied Ecology doi: 10.1111/1365-2665.12315vii Fielding et al. 2010. A conservation framework for hen harriers in the UK. JNCC Report 441.
I am delighted that people are beginning to talk and write about our joint campaign with The Widlife Trusts for a Nature and Wellbeing Act (read Mike McCarthy here and Geroge Monbiot here). Thousands of people have also written to their MPs to encourage them to include a commitment to the Bill in their election manifestos and hundreds of people have already registered to join our Rally for Nature on 9 December.
At the heart of the Bill are long-term targets for nature, which would help hold the Government to account for restoring our natural environment for the next generation. We want the Bill to drive nature's recovery in the same way the Climate Change Act in 2008 has helped to drive down greenhouse gas emissions.
As Matt Shardlow (CEO of Buglife) wrote in his latest blog (here), current endeavours - for example through the government sponsored Nature Improvement Areas - are good but insufficient. I expect the publication of government's biodiversity indicators this week will also show the scale of the challenge - watch out for the new threatened species index and for the state of our finest wildlife sties - SSSIs.
We need a plan, commitment and resources to drive nature's recovery. That's why we’re calling for Local Ecological Network Strategies.
We have also, unashamedly, made the case for a stronger Natural Capital Committee – or an Office for Environmental Responsibility – that would audit Government decisions for their effect on nature, making sure that we don’t use up out natural resources that we depend on, or unwittingly threaten species and habitats. This has caused a little consternation amongst some (see here) but we want the value of nature to be taken into account in decision-making and use any techniques possible to make this happen.
Later this week, the Chancellor George Osborne will deliver his autumn statement and my bold prediction is that the value of nature will be completely absent from his speech. Yet, the Government still intends, by 2020, for the Chancellor of the day to be able to report on the state of our natural capital as well as financial capital. This would change the way that government would respond to the natural world. It doesn't mean that we've sold out and don't believe in the intrinsic value of nature - it means that we are trying to influence the way that traditional economics (and politics) works. I look forward to the day when my fellow Gooner, Robert Peston, is obliged to talk about nature in numbers with the same frequency as the highs and lows of the stock market.
We know how much we need nature. That's why we’re proposing standards for access to high quality green space, and basic education about our natural world in schools, so that everyone can be properly connected with nature. It’s hard to believe that even now, people living in the most deprived areas are 10 times less likely to live in the greenest areas and die on average 7 years earlier than those in the richest areas. But if every household in England were provided with good access to quality green space it could save around £2.1 billion a year in health care costs.
We think the Bill is ambitious but also that its time has come and we need it now.
But maybe we haven't gone far enough. My boss sent me this link to the Rights for Nature Articles in Ecuador's constitution (see here) which argues that nature has the right to exist and to its restoration.
I am sure that is something with which our Bob would agree. So, if you haven't done so already, please do lend him your vote.