March, 2016

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
  • Thoughts on this year's hen harrier breeding season

    It’s rapidly approaching the time of year when hen harriers will be setting up territories and attempting to breed. This is always a nerve wracking time for anyone who cares about these magnificent birds.

    We’re never quite sure where they will attempt to breed and, as last year so graphically illustrated (link), we definitely can’t be sure how things will pan out.

    Nesting depends on a variety of factors, including suitable breeding habitats, vole numbers and meadow pipits.

    The hen harrier breeding season is always a roller coaster of emotions for all of us, most of all for those dedicated staff and volunteers on the ground trying to protect these birds. Unfortunately in recent years it’s been a rollercoaster with more downs than ups.

    But this year could and must be different.

    In England, the Defra Hen Harrier Action Plan (link) has now been published. This has support from Defra, its agencies, the landowning community and others like the RSPB.

    Image courtesy of Mark Hamblin (

    Not everyone is happy with the content of the plan (see here) and as I’ve said before, it’s not perfect (see here). Despite the imperfections, we have welcomed it, principally because of the positive opportunity for progress it presents.

    Now it is for others to demonstrate that their words are matched by credible actions.

    Confidence is fragile unless it is built on firm foundations, and if harriers are interfered with or illegally killed, then those foundations - the basis of the plan - will have been undermined. 

    Government will inevitably then come under greater pressure to regulate grouse shooting. There is a lot at stake.

    As demonstrated in a recent scientific paper from my colleagues (see here), the current intensity of grouse shooting does have significant environmental consequences – not just for hen harriers - which is why we support its licensing as a way to facilitate steps towards securing long term sustainability.

    Tangible actions and progress are the key words here. We have an opportunity and it must be grasped. The RSPB will play our part in progressing the action plan but will focus our finite conservation resources on the first five elements of the plan.

    For example, we have accepted an invitation to sit on a group to discuss a possible harrier reintroduction to southern England and of course we will continue satellite tagging harriers through our Life project (link).

    We’ve chosen not to sit on a group to scope a possible trial of brood management.  This group has to address a number of questions (see here) including objectives of any scheme, its scientific design, its compatibility with existing wildlife legislation and the adequacy of conservation recovery before any trial can commence. Those advocating brood management will have to come up with convincing answers to these questions.

    For this plan is to work, everyone must play their part to deliver its key objective - more hen harriers.

    To give us confidence that the plan is working, we must see real progress this year. We’re not setting hard and fast numbers, as we recognise that any number of variables could play a part. But we are clear that progress means more hen harriers breeding successfully in more places across northern England, including on private estates, and that ‘Favourable Condition’ on the land designated for harriers in England becomes a significant step nearer.

    To ensure focus remains on the conservation outcome we want, we won’t be providing day by day updates on the breeding season.

    Instead, we’ll provide a mid-season update on 6 June and then let everyone know how the season has gone in late August with a detailed update. We will, of course, not hesitate to involve the police if anything untoward is found, and press for a full and speedy investigation, but we hope and expect a better season for hen harriers.

    We want to be in a position to report positive news. If that happens it will give confidence to all of us that the Plan is working. If however we don’t see real progress, then it will call in to question this approach and  Defra, will need to consider how to meet its nature conservation responsibilities. We have therefore sent the minister, Rory Stewart, a letter outlining these key points.

    2016 is a pivotal year for hen harriers. The action plan gives us the best opportunity for real, meaningful progress. We hope everyone will rise to the challenge. It’s vital that opportunity is grasped by all involved.

  • A view from the hills: reaction to new paper published on the environmental impacts of driven grouse shooting

    A curlew calling to welcome the spring is, to many, one of the most evocative sounds in nature. It is a sound that carries with it the hopes and expectations of everyone who cares about the future of our moorland and hills.  For someone living in the flatlands of the East of England, it also evokes in me a sense of wanderlust - a desire to get out into the hills.

    Yet, our internationally important curlew population is in trouble which is why we have embarked on a major species recovery programme to try to halt and reverse its  decline (see here).

    Indeed, there are a whole suite of upland species which are in trouble, which is why we plan to reinvigorate our conservation effort for these species over the coming years. 

    Through our experience as land managers, through the evidence our scientists and others have gathered, though our long engagement with the issues that affect landuse in the hills it has become an inescapable conclusion that the progressive deterioration of our uplands can only be tackled through a shared and ambitious vision.

    The environmental impact of the landuse that supports driven shooting of red grouse is a case in point.

    A group of my colleagues led by Pat Thompson, our senior uplands policy officer, has brought together the case for reform of grouse moor management practices.  Our upland bogs and heaths are special, internationally important yet currently compromised by management practices designed to maximise the numbers of red grouse for recreational shooting.

    The paper Environmental impacts of high-output driven shooting of Red Grouse Lagopus logopus scotica is now published (here) in the journal Ibis and is a clear summary of all the evidence that drives our concerns. Our concerns are not new.

    The combination of intensive shooting practice with weak regulation has, the authors argue, created the conditions where the wider environmental impacts of driven grouse moor management have received little public scrutiny.

    This is changing.

    In recent years, there has been public outrage over the illegal persecution and extirpation of breeding hen harriers in England.  Spotlight has also fallen on the culling of mountain hares, the unknown environmental consequences of treating a wild bird with medication, the impact of burning and the consequences of upland management for flood management.

    The paper suggests that the grouse industry can deliver environmental benefits and can make a real and valuable contribution to species conservation – I selected the curlew to open this blog for that very reason.

    It is difficult to conceive of a realistic rescue plan for curlews without the active and enthusiastic involvement of upland landowners and managers. But to achieve this, reform of the management of grouse moors and shooting style is needed - this is where our analysis of the evidence leads us.  This is why we have called for licensing of driven grouse shooting (here).  Some would prefer we went further, while others have argued for the status quo (see here).  

    We are determined to engage constructively with those keen to improve the environmental conditions of our uplands.  And, this is why we have signed up to Defra's Hen Harrier Action Plan for England (see here).  As spring approaches, I shall later this week set out our hopes and expectations for the season ahead.

    One thing is certain, the reaction to the paper and to this blog will vary and mirror the extremes of the debate – and it is a debate. We publish this as a contribution – not the full answer but with the clear understanding that without leadership and reform there will be ever greater scrutiny of the impact of high-output driven grouse shooting.

    It would be great to hear your views.


    Curlew by Graham Catley

    Bowland by me 

  • Reaction to 2016 Budget

    Back in November, there were fears that the Spending Review would result in deep cuts to the Defra budget in a Spending Review. In the end, new economic forecasts came to the rescue and handed the Chancellor £26 billion he didn’t know he had.  This led to something of a reprieve with Defra 'only' having to find 15% of savings (see here).

    Once again, with the rumours of a further £4 billion in spending cuts, our economists waited in trepidation for news of how the environment would fare in today's Budget.

    The expected £4 billion of cuts shrank to £3.5 billion but were not allocated – the Chancellor preferring to allocate them to a general aspiration for ‘efficiency savings’ for the moment.

    So Defra's budget came out of today’s speech unscathed. Remember though that Defra has, since 2010, fared worse than most government departments and will have been cut by around 50% in real terms between 2010 by 2020 and (Decc by 37%). Defra will be receiving the fourth biggest cuts of any department and the £3.5 billion left to be assigned could swallow it a couple of times over.

    Defra is currently working on its 25 year plan for nature without extra funding. Successive governments have failed to match resources to meet nature's needs and so it will be especially challenging and the Government will have to find innovative ways of bridging the funding gap.

    There is some good news here because the most surprising and innovatory aspect of the Budget was the introduction of a sugar levy on sugary drinks. This measure, which had wide support from academics, public health experts and celebrities like Jamie Oliver, re-introduces two important principles for fiscal measures. Firstly, they can be used explicitly to effect behavioural change and secondly, that the proceeds can be earmarked for specific uses (sport activities in schools in the case of the sugar levy). The RSPB has explored the beneficial use of such taxes in issues from peat use in horticulture to pollution in water courses. They could have a major part to play in stemming environmentally damaging activities and, as the Landfill Tax demonstrates, they work really well.

    The Landfill Tax was introduced by the last Conservative Government and was the first time anywhere in the world that the cost of a green tax was directly linked to the environmental damage caused. The tax increased the cost of throwing things away and increased the incentive on councils to improve facilities for recycling which in turn affected household behaviour. In terms of success, the household recycling rate was around 7% of total waste in 1996 , today it has reached 45% . That shift has a direct impact on land use as old quarries can be turned into wetlands and fewer landfill sites also reduces the polluting effects that can follow. Additionally, Landfill Operators can retain a small percentage of their total tax liability to invest in the Landfill Communities Fund (LCF). This fund is then invested directly in things for the communities around their landfill sites. Things like scout huts but also, very significantly in nature conservation. Defra estimates that about £13 million of funding for biodiversity comes from the LCF. That is about 3% of all the biodiversity funding in the UK.

    Species like the tree pipit are flourishing at places like Broadwater Warren thanks to funding from the Landfill Community Fund (Credit: Graham Catley)

    Ten times today, the Chancellor emphasised that this was a Budget that put future generations first. I hope the creative thinking shown on the sugar levy will open the door to explore further opportunities to use fiscal instruments to incentivise pro-environmental behaviour and help it meets it commitment to pass on the natural world in a better state to the next generation.

    One final point of interest from today's Budget relates to the announcement on infrastructure spend. In addition to the need to accelerate spend on physical infrastructure, the Chancellor spoke of the need to support cultural infrastructure as well. If the Chancellor could just add environmental, or green, infrastructure to that list and consider some more places to implement behavioural taxes the 25 year plan to restore biodiversity in a generation might just get the financial support it needs.

    If we can make that happen, perhaps in 2017 we will be in a position to applaud a green Budget.