January, 2015

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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
  • The Hen Harrier Action Plan – two big unanswered questions

    The content of the Hen Harrier Action Plan has once again been subject to much commentary through social media (see here and here) .  This was triggered by news that another conservation organisation, the Hawk and Owl Trust, has agreed to run an experiment to test a scheme known as brood management.

    This is not the way to formulate policy in a highly contested area and it reinforces my view that the brood management scheme should have been put out to public consultation.  There is little trust between the grouse and raptor communities and I fail to see how deals done behind closed doors will instill confidence.

    Our position on the Action Plan and the proposed brood management scheme – see here - has not changed.

    We believe brood management could 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 think that’s reasonable, given that it gives estates a chance to tackle impacts through diversionary feeding, and puts the beleaguered hen harrier first by giving the species a chance to recover naturally.

    Those designing or promoting the plan will have to answer a number of questions to carry public confidence (we've posed 25), but by far and away the most important ones are...

    1. What are the objectives of the trial?

    2. What is the legal basis for carry out such a trial?

    The former matters because a trial is a trial – it is designed to test a proposition and report on whether it was successful.  The latter – well, you’d want any scheme to operate within the law wouldn’t you?  But, given there is a proven and less interventionist way of reducing predation of grouse by hen harriers (ie diversionary feeding) or reducing illegal killing (ie stop illegal killing), I remain unclear as to how a trial would respect protected species legislation.

    While all of this is rumbling on, I thought it would be useful to reiterate what we should all be trying to achieve i.e. recovery of one England’s most threatened species.

    Back in 2011, the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) published ‘A Conservation Framework for Hen Harriers in the United Kingdom’ http://jncc.defra.gov.uk/pdf/jncc441.pdf . The JNCC provides the Government with advice on nature conservation issues. The document sets out targets for what is known as favourable conservation status and identifies the constraints acting on hen harrier populations across the UK. But, what is this so-called favourable conservation status and what does it mean?

    The wording in the EU Birds Directive and Habitats Directive is the key. They say that ‘‘conservation status of a species means the sum of the influences acting on the species concerned that may affect the long-term distribution and abundance of its populations’’ and that ‘‘the conservation status will be taken as ‘favourable’ when:

    • population dynamics data on the species indicate that it is maintaining itself on a long-term basis as a viable component of its natural habitats;
    • the natural range of the species is neither being reduced nor is likely to be reduced for the foreseeable future; and
    • there is, and will probably continue to be, a sufficiently large habitat to maintain its populations on a long-term basis.’’

    Favourable conservation status does not mean that when criteria are reached populations can be capped or managed through culling. It simply defines a ‘safety net’ to ensure populations, like that of the hen harrier in England, do not drop below dangerous threshold and when they do, that urgent action should be taken to seek recovery.

    In the current JNCC Framework, regional targets for favourable conservation status were set as follows:

    • A minimum of 1.2 young fledged per breeding attempt; • at least 44% of the apparently suitable habitat occupied; and
    • a density (number of pairs per 100 km2) threshold of 2.12 pairs per 100 km2 of suitable habitat.

    Based on an estimate of 6,636 km2 of habitat, this suggests that England should be supporting at least 61 pairs to achieve favourable conservation status. Yet, based on the total area of suitable habitat available and the best available data at the time, the authors estimated that the potential English population could be as high as 323-340 pairs.  I understand that a second version of the JNCC Framework is to be published soon.  We'll see if the numbers change.

    In 2014, there were only four successful hen harrier nests in England. So, whether you agree with JNCC’s criteria or not, we have a very long way to go to reach their estimate for favourable conservation status and even further if these birds were left to settle and breed in the areas where they should be an integral part of our countryside. Whatever methods Defra decides to back in the Hen Harrier Action Plan, we believe the test of its success will be the recovery of the hen harrier across all suitable habitat and that this should be the ultimate objective.

    The RSPB will work with everyone who wants to secure favourable conservation status and then build on that to secure full recovery across suitable habitat. That’s why we support the majority of the Defra-lead Hen Harrier Action Plan (the actions that tackle illegal persecution threat directly and promote diversionary feeding) and are stepping up our own efforts through our new EU LIFE+ funded project. You can read more about this new and exciting project and how you can get involved at http://www.rspb.org.uk/henharrierlife/.


  • Waggle dancing for nature in 2015

    2015 - it feels like a big year.  There's an election around the corner and, by the end of the year, we'll know the fate of wildlife sites such as Lodge Hill, the future of the EU Nature Directives and whether we'll have a global climate change deal.

    It is a year that is crying out for good decisions.  

    So, my resolution for the year is simple - make and demand better decisions for nature.

    During the break, on the recommendation of a colleague, I read Thomas Seeley's excellent book 'Honeybee Democracy'.  Through a series of studies Professor Seeley reveals how honeybee swarms decide where to establish a new colony for their new queen.   It is a fascinating insight into honeybee decision-making in which thousands of bees take part in what looks like a democratic debate to choose their new home.  Scouts advertise their nest site preferences with 'waggle dances' and debates rage for hours or even days. Once a decision is made, the swarm sets off for their new home.

    We'll have our fair share of waggle dancing from politicians when the election campaign kicks off - each of the parties courting our vote by offering their vision and plans for the country.  As they make their case, I also hope the leaders take note of Bob who, with his growing band of followers, will be waggle dancing for nature.  The manifestos are important but so are the decisions that the incoming government makes - when faced with a crisis or an opportunity.  

    Not a bee, but an adult female Bee-eater at a nest hole, Bishop Middleham Durham Wildlife Trust reserve, taken by Andy Hay a decade ago

    The new cabinet could do well by taking a few tips from the bees.  At the end of 'Honeybee Democracy' (which I would encourage you to read), Professor Seeley uses the honeybee experiences to propose some principles of good group decision-making...

    ...compose the decision-making group of individuals with shared interest and mutual respect i.e. gather people together who have shared values and a common ambition.  

    ...minimise the leader's influence on the group's thinking - the queen bee has no say in the decision-making process and any Prime Minister should be humble enough to admit that they may not have all the answers

    ...seek diverse solutions to the problem i.e. being led by dogma rarely delivers good outcomes

    ...aggregate the group's knowledge through debate i.e. be broad minded and if the information changes, be prepared to adapt

    ...use quorate responses for cohesion, accuracy and speed i.e. follow the 80:20 rule rather than obsessively search for consensus

    I'd add a sixth - have regard to the health of the planet.  A small thing, but it's amazing how easily politicians neglect this simple rule.   I am sure the bees would approve.

    In 2015, the RSPB will also need to make some big decisions and I think the honeybee lessons can serve us well as we seek to decide...

    ...which of the many threatened species we should invest finite resources to aid their recovery

    ...how to optimise and grow the wildlife value of land that we own and manage

    ...how to generate greater support for the RSPB and for nature conservation

    ...how to prevent the EU Nature Directives being weakened

    ...how to encourage our elected leaders to deliver a fair, ambitious binding global deal to tackle climate change

    ...how to respond to development decisions such as the one ministers will need to make about housing development at Lodge Hill

    We'll be guided by a desire to do whatever nature needs.   I would be surprised if we receive universal acclaim for the decisions we make but the ultimate test of the quality of our decisions will what happens to populations of species on and off our reserves.

    Whatever you decide to do this year, make sure that you spend time looking at wildlife - bees, birds or bluebells - it will inspire you, I promise.  

    Have a great 2015.

    To get you in the mood for the year ahead, here is a great picture of starlings beginning their murmuration  at RSPB Otmoor taken by my colleague Colin Wilkinson.

  • Deeply beautiful : why we should rule out fracking in protected areas

    There is a peculiar distinction in British environmentalism that has separated beauty from wildlife.  These two features of the natural world have been championed by different NGOs and even command distinct designations.  I blame Romanticism.  It's never made sense to me - the pleasure and inspiration I draw from beautiful places and amazing wildlife are intrinsically linked.

    And now, for no rational reason, the UK Government has chosen to provide different levels of protection to beauty and wildlife from the new development bête noir - fracking.

    Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs) are aptly named. There are 46 in Britain, some remote like the Isles of Scilly, the wonderful Northumberland coast (home to my family's hut), some right on the edge of urban England, like Cannock Chase—snapped here by @jimpanda as part of our winter photo competition.

    AONBs are protected under the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000. The law should guard against development that threatens adverse impacts on AONBs. Adverse impacts normally include effects like loss of tranquillity from lighting, noise, or traffic; abrupt change of landscape character; and loss of biodiversity.

    Fracking could have all these effects and more.

    While acknowledging the risks to climate change targets, the Are we fit to frack? report also documented a range of damage that fracking could inflict through exploratory and commercial drilling and associated activities, including development and transport infrastructure, water over-abstraction and pollution and noise and light interference.  This potential for destruction is alarming and, in response, on 28 July 2014 the Government published new guidance to rule out shale gas exploration in AONBs, National Parks and World Heritage Sites except in exceptional circumstances.

    Cannock Chase by @jimpanda

    That is a welcome step. But of course, beauty isn’t only skin deep.

    While the Government decided to strengthen the protection of these landscape sites where the damage would be obvious, it failed to offer similar safeguards for our finest wildlife sites, where the effects are potentially even more devastating.

    Take chalk streams, for example. England is home to 85% of the world’s chalk streams. They are prized fisheries and home to protected species such as salmon and sea trout, which need clean water to thrive.

    Many of our chalk streams are designated as protected sites for their wildlife, including Sites of Special Scientific Interest, and fall within the area where Government could shortly award licences to frack.

    Yet the Government did not see fit to offer additional protection for SSSIs at the same time as AONBs.

    English chalk streams are extremely vulnerable to pollution, as well as extra demand for water. In the Chilterns alone there are nine chalk streams, all suffering from low flows as a result of over-abstraction

    The Chilterns Conservation Board has raised concerns over the compatibility of shale gas extraction with conserving these special places. Water abstraction strain and contamination from leakage may happen out of sight below ground, but the risk to these habitats should not be ignored.

    There are many other examples: 85% of the global population of pink-footed geese spend winter in the UK. Two of the four main over-wintering sites for pink-footed geese lie within possible shale gas extraction zones.

    The Government tells us that protected sites like SSSIs, local wildlife reserves or Natura 2000 sites designated by the EU Birds and Habitats Directives, do not need extra protection—mostly because they are already covered by planning guidance and legal defences. There are two main problems with this point of view.

    First of all, the same applies to AONBs and the other landscape sites that the Government saw fit to offer extra guidance for last year. Of course, the damage to SSSIs caused by pollution in our streams, or draining dry of sensitive habitats, may not be as visible as new roads and wells in a National Park. But should we really leave our most sensitive sites open to development, just because the damage isn’t so obvious?

    Second, there are worrying signs that the safeguards that we have relied on for so many years are now under threat. How can we rely on the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) when the Government is even countenancing allowing a 5,000 home development at Lodge Hill, the UK’s most important site for nightingales and building a solar farm on Rampisham Down SSSI in Dorset?  The paper protection provided by the NPPF is looking on shaky ground.

    In the long term, is it even safe to rely on the European Directives, when some Members of the House of Commons are so eagerly awaiting a review (which is always code for weaken) and the European Commission President Juncker seems set to oblige?

    Hydraulic fracturing for shale gas is like nothing we’ve seen before in this country. The infrastructure is bigger, the wells penetrate further, and the amount of water needed could be significant. 18% of the UK’s SSSIs, 13% of our Special Areas of Conservation and 14% of our Special Protection Areas are covered by the current licensing round, but only a small portion of the gas available would be lost by ruling them out.

    If this goes ahead, can we really expect to improve on the 1/3rd of SSSIs in favourable condition today, to meet our target of 50% by 2020? Are we willing to put our most precious wildlife at risk? It’s common sense to issue guidance that gives industry some certainty and rules out our most precious sanctuaries for wildlife.

    On Monday 26 January, the Infrastructure Bill goes to Report Stage in the House of Commons.

    This is the last chance for the Government to rule out fracking in protected areas as part of this bill. There are encouraging signs: MPs from all sides of the House—Tom Greatrex MP, Norman Baker MP, and Sir John Randall MP—have tabled amendments that would effectively stop fracking in the protected places it could hurt the most. I hope that the when the time comes, Parliament will recognise how deeply, and how precariously, the beauty of our natural world runs in this country and rule out fracking in our most wonderful wildlife sites.