April, 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
  • In 25 years time...

    Today, I am speaking at a Westminster Forum seminar on the future of policy on biodiversity and natural capital in the UK.  Here is a long-hand version of what I plan to say.  Do have a read and then let me know what you think.   


    Imagine a future where....

    ...there is enough land for the food we need and for wildlife because we use the food we buy, we consume only what we need and farmers provide habitat for wildlife on their land because they know it helps maintain yields in the long term

    ...fishermen can make a living while safeguarding fish populations

    ...at least 20% of our land and seas are really well managed for wildlife as well as people, and where wild species aren’t just protected, but thriving

    ...it is increasingly popular for land to be bought, enhanced for wildlife and passed on with legally binding conservation covenants

    ...everybody can have good contact with wildlife within 300 metres of where they live

    ...all our energy needs are provided by the power of the sun, wind and waves

    ...landowners welcome tourists on to their land to show them birds of prey

    ...children in England send emails to children in Ghana letting them know when their migratory birds have arrived in our spring

    ...we have an annual celebration of the special wildlife on our overseas territories

    ...we have annual parliamentary debates to agree action to improve the state of nature

    ...we are proud to have the best environment in the world because we have restored wildlife populations in a generation

    This is what, as an optimist, I imagine when I read the Conservative party’s manifesto commitment “to develop a 25 Year Plan to restore the UK’s biodiversity”.  It reflects the ambition of the Convention on Biological Diversity (and its Aichi targets for 2020) whose goal is for humans to live in harmony with nature.

    The challenge is how to turn this dream land into a real land.


    Today, we know that 60% of species for which we have data have declined in my lifetime (see here).  We know that while 10.6% of UK land is designated as important for nature conservation, only half of that is currently well managed for wildlife (see government figures here).  We also know that about a third of the services that nature gives us (so-called ecosystem services) are degraded (see here).  Yet, through targeted conservation action, we have been able to recover the populations of some of our most threatened species like cirl bunting, bittern and red kite. 

    Image Courtesy of Chris Gomersall (rspb-images.com)


    Our approach to emergency care is not possible for all species everywhere.  We need to do more to prevent declines.  That means tackling both the proximate drivers of change (such as habitat loss or degradation - often associated with changes in climate, land use or management) as well as the ultimate drivers (a growing population that consumes more and an economic system that fails to fully recognise and account for the impacts of our choices on nature and the wider environment).  


    It’s not rocket science.

    We need...

    ...strong and sustained leadership from both governments and the private sector: political leaders to set out a clear and ambitious vision for our future environment, and to put in place the tools needed to deliver that vision.  And business leaders to be forward-looking, to recognise the value of natural capital in their businesses, and to prioritise long-term sustainability over short term economic gains.

    ...a long term planning:  in England, the Government is currently writing a 25 year plan for the environment. This would take us to the year 2040, beyond the time horizon set out in the Aichi targets and into a world that could be experiencing significant impacts of climate change. In order to address the major challenges we will face in that time, we need commitment to long-term environmental planning. However, for such a plan to actually deliver a lasting legacy, it needs to cut across government departments, and be able to withstand political upheaval - I cannot see how this can be achieved without legislation to guarantee political consensus for the long term.  And I struggle to see how we can do this without good local/regional spatial mapping to help us reconcile the social, economic and environmental needs.

    ...the right tools in our toolkit: which must include regulation, as well as incentives and voluntary approaches.  From the recent fitness check on the EU Birds and Habitats Directives (the most important bits of nature legislation we have), we know that:

    • They work: species and habitats under their protection fair better than those that are not protected
    • They work best where they are properly implemented and enforced by government (see the report ‘From Nature Alert to Action’ published by BirdLife Europe last week)
    • That the public support them: over half a million EU citizens recently stepped up to call for the Directives to better implemented and enforced, rather than weakened. This response broke all the records, and over a hundred thousand of those that responded were based here in the UK.

    Good regulation is not only essential for nature, it can also be good for business, levelling the playing field so that those that are committed to safeguarding natural capital are not at a competitive disadvantaged. And this can help drive innovation too.

    We also know that incentive payments can be effective in leveraging positive environmental change, and that such approaches (such as agri-environment schemes and other methods for paying for ecosystem services) are particularly important for delivering environmental benefits on land outside our protected area network. 

    However, for such approaches to add value in practice, they have to work alongside an effective regulatory framework (the carrot AND the stick). We’ve seen examples of this working for example...

    ...at Medmery on the south coast where a flood risk management project has helped to protect 350 homes while also contributing to a statutory obligation to restore 100 hectares of coastal habitat annually and

    ...our work with United Utilities and with Northern Ireland Water is showing that restoring our uplands is good for wildlife, good for water quality and therefore good for business and people.  This would have been possible without changes to the rules governing water company investments that enabled upstream management and, especially in England, a clear political steer to improve the condition of our finest wildlife sites.

    Image courtesy of Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)

    Effective regulation will be key to the success of innovative approaches like biodiversity offsetting and natural capital accounting.  Without it, there is a danger that either nothing happens or that we end up too easily trading away fought so hard to protect over recent decades.

    ...powerful statutory agencies with the confidence and independence (and resources) to say and do the right thing adopting an ‘outcomes approach’ that safeguards the environment, that values long-term sustainability over short term economic gains and that places the protection and restoration of species and habitats at its heart.

    ...a feisty and committed NGO sector that inspires people to act and cajoles governments and businesses to do more.


    All of this is possible – we know what works because different parts of the UK have been starting to do it...

     ...in England, we’ve been trying new approaches to landscape-scale conservation through our Nature Improvement Areas. Where these have been most effective their success has been driven by strong leadership, a clear vision for what they are trying to achieve, effective partnerships and adequate resourcing. 

    ...in Wales, the Environment Act builds on the 2015 Wellbeing of Future Generations Act which commits them to becoming ‘a nation that maintains and enhances a biodiverse natural environment with healthy, functioning ecosystems that support social, economic and ecological resilience and the capacity to adapt to change (for example, climate change)’. 

    ...in Scotland, strategic environmental planning has been established to address the challenge of climate change. Through their 2016-2021 Land Use Strategy, the Scottish government set out their Principles for Sustainable Land Use, aimed at guiding policy and decision making by Government and across the public sector. 

    What's more, I am looking forward to the proposed pathfinder projects in England, as this will offer new opportunities to learn about how to deliver multiple benefits at scale.


    Effective monitoring and clear milestones are vital in order to ensure that we stay on track. Any environmental strategy – whether it is in England or Scotland or anywhere else in the world - should set out clear objectives and report on progress. For both voluntary and regulatory policy approaches, the evidence suggests that clear targets combined with robust/transparent monitoring and reporting, are key to delivering long-term success.

    The ultimate test of course of whether species and habitats are doing better, whether we have lived up to the spirit of Professor Sir John Lawton's mantra of "more, bigger, better and joined" protected areas and whether we have met our international biodiversity targets.

    Although we have some of the best data in the world, every year the Office of National Statistics publishes our biodiversity indicators and no-one notices – no fanfare.  We need greater political profile for nature conservation, and for why it matters for us all

    That’s why NGOs like the RSPB, the Wildlife Trusts and National Trust are doing more to engage people with nature and to get them active.  An active public creates the demand for a stronger political response to the state of nature and increases the chances of making our dream land a real land.  

    The prize is great: productive woodlands that are carpeted with bluebells and reverberate to the sound of nightingales; uplands that store carbon, slow run off, and are graced by hen harriers, glisten with sundews and ring to the sound of curlew; and seas that are sustainably fished and alive with dolphins, sea horses and puffins.  I want this for us now and for the next generation. 

    Bluebells, Wood of Cree, Dumfries and Galloway Andy Hay (rspb-images.com) 

  • In search of the environment in the EU referendum debate

    You won’t have failed to notice that the EU Referendum campaign is now well and truly underway. Representatives from both sides of the argument are now regularly popping up on the TV, radio and even the doorstep.

    But how much do we know about what either side is saying about what the referendum will mean for our wildlife and the natural environment? In short, almost nothing. I have yet to hear either campaign talk seriously about environmental issues.

    The UK Government’s recent leaflet sent to every household included a welcome reference to climate change, but was otherwise lacking any environmental content.

    Fortunately, these issues are being raised beyond the main campaign groups.

    Today, for instance, the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee has published a report (see here) on the value of EU environment policy.

    I gave evidence on behalf of the RSPB to the Committee back in January (see here) and argued at the time that because nature – and the threats nature faces – do not respect national boundaries, comprehensive international agreements for nature conservation and the environment, together with a robust and enforceable governance framework, are essential.

    Today´s report concludes that “EU membership has been a crucial factor in shaping UK environmental policy on air and water pollution, and biodiversity”. The report acknowledges this has been a two-way street, with EU legislation leading to improved environmental standards in the UK, but also giving the UK a platform to pursue its environmental objectives internationally. The Committee report also concludes that businesses like the certainty and opportunities for longer-term planning that EU policy allows.

    RSPB Forsinard in the Flow Country protected by the EU Nature Directives by Eleanor Bentall (rspb-images.com)

    However, it is important to note that the Common Agricultural Policy – an EU policy that, despite some recent reforms, has unquestionably contributed to significant biodiversity loss across Europe – was not within the scope of this inquiry.

    The EAC report follows two other significant reports which set out the possible implications on environment policy of the UK withdrawing from the EU: the IEEP report co-commissioned by the RSPB and a separate report by leading academics last week.

    Despite this, we have yet to have a serious response to these reports from either side in the debate.  The health of the environment matters to millions of people in this country and we deserve to know from leading figures on both sides of the debate how their respective positions will help address the many challenges we face.

    That’s why, this week, the RSPB will be writing to the two official campaign groups – “Britain Stronger in Europe” and “Vote Leave” – asking them to set out clearly what their proposition will mean for the natural world and environment.

    We will be asking them to explain how remaining in, or withdrawing from, the EU will address the crucial issues of nature protection, sustainable agriculture and fisheries, and climate change, and we will present their proposition to our members here in coming weeks.

    I will also set out a series of issues that need addressing at a political level, and will be challenging politicians on both side of the debate to set out their vision.

    Of course, I recognise that the environment is just one of a suite of issues that people need to consider when weighing up how to vote – but at present both the official campaigns and leading politicians are sadly neglecting this issue. 

    That’s not good enough.  The stakes are too high.  The millions that care about wildlife and the natural environment deserve some answers.

  • In five years time...

    Twice a year, my senior conservation team visits part of the UK to see the impact we are having for wildlife and places.  There are ten different RSPB countries or regions and so we usually get round to each every five years or so.  Nature conservation takes time, so the trips provide useful milestones against which we can judge our impact whilst also providing an opportunity to connect with colleagues in other parts of the organisation.  The spin-off benefit is that we also get to see some wildlife.

    This week was no exception.  We were over in Northern Ireland looking at our work recovering waders such as lapwing, snipe, redshank and curlew.  Since we were last over as a group, our NI colleagues have, through its work with farmers, begun to turn round the fortunes of waders through the Halting Environmental Loss Project.  But some species remain in a perilous state.  

    Of greatest concern is curlew.  

    The UK hosts a quarter of the global breeding population of curlew but since the 1990’s its breeding population has almost halved across the UK and is down by a staggering 82% in Northern Ireland since 1987.  The main driver is low productivity caused by a reduction in suitable habitat and predation.  The curlew is likely to disappear from some places, particularly in Wales and Ireland, unless we act now and protect remaining strongholds such as Glenwherry in County Antrim.    


    Picture courtesy of @scribblesbyjohn

    We visited Glenwherry (below) on Wednesday and were shown around one of the farms which is taking part in our five year curlew recovery programme.  This is one of the largest and most ambitious research projects that we have undertaken.  In all, we are working on 6 sites across across the UK including a mixture of reserves and privately owned land.  On each trial site we'll deploy habitat management and predator control interventions.   In addition to monitoring how curlew respond to the changes we make on these trial sites, we will also monitor how curlew are doing on linked ‘control’ sites that do not have the enhanced management.  We're doing this to to inform the development of ‘curlew-friendly’ land management options across the wider landscape to help stabilise the curlew breeding population.  

    The trial site seemed to be responding well to some of the rush management and we saw a number making display flights.  But, we'll have to wait five years before we can demonstrate whether our interventions have made a significant difference.  So, when the RSPB's senior conservation team return in five years (with or without me), I hope and expect that curlew numbers will have responded well and government agencies will be ready to adapt their wildlife-friendly farming schemes to help drive the recovery of the curlew.

    In the meantime, as the many placards of candidates at roundabouts testify, there is an election on 5 May in Northern Ireland (as in Wales and Scotland).  Our friend Bob is back on the campaign trail and he has already recruited 92 Northern Irish politicians (99 in Wales and 138 in Scotland).

    We want a higher political profile for nature conservation and so my Northern Ireland colleagues have been meeting the political parties to make the case for nature including action to tackle the drivers of biodiversity loss.  Not only do we want action to improve the protection and management of the important wildlife sites on land and at sea, but we are calling for the funding for the new Environmental Farming Scheme to be protected until 2020 and this must include advisory support for farmers so they can help halt decline in wildlife.  

    Action to recover wildlife over the long term requires sustained political support.  Only then will the needs of species like curlew be met and mainstreamed in modern farming. 

    Glenwherry with Slemish mountain in the background and a curlew just flying out of shot (courtesy of Ellen Wilson)