May, 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
  • The RSPB and grouse shooting

    Over the past week I have been contacted by many people through a variety of media about the RSPB’s position on grouse shooting.

    It’s fair to say that I have had a mixed response – some offering full support (which is much appreciated), while others wishing we would back the call for a ban (these are also appreciated, especially the polite ones). A flavour of the critique is captured in the comments on Friday's blog but some of the criticisms that we have received (usually via twitter) have been, let’s say, more blunt.

    So, I thought that it would be useful to share a few insights into our position.

    The RSPB is an evidence-based organisation but also one with values. Our values reflect our charitable objectives to undertake conservation for the public good.

    For example, we are supportive of renewable energy in the fight against climate change, but we oppose developments that will impact on wildlife populations and important habitats. On the other hand, we are against airport expansion unless or until it can be demonstrated that a growth in capacity will be consistent with obligations to greenhouse gas reduction targets.

    Equally, we are neither for or against organic or farming that uses pesticides or even GM crops. We care about the impact that those farming practices have on the natural environment and we work with any farming system to help recover farmland wildlife populations.

    We are also neutral on the ethics of shooting but we do care about the environmental consequences of that activity.

    And the growing evidence of the environmental impact of ever intensive driven grouse shooting led us in 2012 to conclude that self-regulation of this industry had failed and so we would advocate a licensing system designed to reduce the negative impacts.

    Others, including two of the RSPB’s Vice-Presidents and my predecessor, Mark Avery, would like us to go further and are calling for a ban on driven grouse shooting.

    I have doubts as to the viability of such a proposition but I respect their position, even though I disagree with it. What I do not respect, is the drip-drip of scorn that is levelled at the RSPB about our position and our wider work to protect birds of prey.

    On this issue and in this job, I have learnt not to get riled by comments but when people have implied over the past week that we do not have the courage to support a ban on grouse shooting, I take exception.

    To me, courage is staying up all night protect a hen harrier nest. Courage is managing a nature reserve next to an intensively managed grouse shoot, where the gamekeepers of the neighbouring estate patrol the borders, yes with guns. Courage is installing cameras on estates where bird of prey crime is thought to happen in the hope of catching the criminals in the act. Courage is appearing in a witness stand in the face of a defence lawyer who attacks both the evidence and the character of the person providing it.

    This is the courage that RSPB staff and volunteers demonstrate again and again. And I will go further and suggest that courage is looking your friends at Natural England in the eye and telling them that they were wrong to enter into an ill-conceived management agreement with Walshaw Moor Estate and that this would trigger a legal challenge.

    It also takes courage when members of the shooting community speak out against others who need to improve the way their shooting estates are managed.

    I think that change is coming. In Scotland, the Government is seriously considering whether to introduce a licensing system for driven grouse shooting. This is long overdue but would be a welcome step.

    Given our neutrality on the ethics of shooting, we do not make a judgement about the rights or wrongs of people driving red grouse across a moor to be shot (provided it does not affect the conservation status of red grouse).  We focus our efforts on the environmental damage caused by grouse shooting: the peatlands that are damaged by burning, the water that is polluted, the predators that are illegal killed. We believe that a licensing system, a reformed approach to consenting burning on peatlands, restoration of these special sites coupled with better enforcement and tougher penalties for wildlife crime can address these issues. And we will work with anyone to make this happen and give credit when and where it is due.

    As I have written previously, if the economics of any business – including grouse shooting – was dependent on environmentally unsustainable practices, then I would argue that it was time for that business to change.

    I do not expect that this blog will change the minds of those that support a ban – indeed, that is not my motivation. To those that do not like our position because you want us to support a ban, I at least ask you to respect our position. To those that do not like it because it challenges your sport, I ask that you look at the growing public concern associated with your sport and encourage you to seek reform from within the shooting community.

    If you have any comments on this blog, as ever, it would be great to hear your views.

  • Thinking big, thinking about Dartmoor

    When I think of the uplands of England, my mind usually heads north.  So I enjoyed a couple of days a fortnight ago experiencing the southern uplands on Dartmoor.  The visit was a chance to catch up with research our team is doing with others (Exeter University, Dartmoor National Park Authority, Natural England and Devon Birds) to diagnose the reasons for the major declines in summer migrants including cuckoo, whinchat, wood warbler and pied flycatcher.

    John Bridges' image of a cuckoo ( and cuckoo breeding distribution maps from Devon Bird Atlas (bottom left 1988, top right 2007-13) showing a massive contraction in range

    The uplands of the south west are the same but different from those in the north.  The habitats are familiar - blanket bog, heather and grass moors with deep wooded valleys - but Dartmoor (shown below) has its own distinctive cultural heritage, land use and wildlife to match.  There is no driven grouse shooting down south but there are still plenty of challenges such as managing levels of grazing, swaling (a Devonian term for the tradition of burning gorse), and lots and lots of visitors.

    The significance of Dartmoor to the wildlife of the Devon was highlighted with the publication last year of the Devon Bird Atlas.  Many species’ ranges (like cuckoo and whinchat) have retreated to Dartmoor – at 954 square kilometres it is the largest chunk of semi-natural habitat in the county.  These trends are reflected across the UK through volunteer surveys such as the Breeding Bird Survey and the Bird Atlas for Britain and Ireland published last year.  This is why the RSPB will be giving more attention to the suite of species associated with the uplands over the next few years.

    The uplands arguably are where we can make big conservation gains to live up to the Lawtonian* mantra of more, bigger, better and connected protected areas.  We have been surprised and delighted by the speed of recovery of upland species on back of restoration activity.  For example, through the Sustainable Catchment Management Project (SCaMP) with our partner United Utilities in the Peak District, we have done a huge amount to restore the peatlands especially through blocking drains and getting the right grazing in place.  The conservation response has been really impressive leading increases in moorland breeding waders of conservation concern including dunlin which experienced a 775% increase in a decade.  This landscape-scale approach to habitat restoration has benefitted a diverse range of bird species, from red grouse to buzzards. The SCaMP study provides strong evidence of the potential to transform damaged ecosystems.  Across the wider English uplands, over 200,000 ha of blanket bog is in need of restoration. To achieve this, it has been estimated it will require annual capital costs of around £27 million for six years. With investment, there is the potential to secure future benefits for wildlife, carbon, water and people. 

    There is similar opportunity on Dartmoor, which has 8,500 hectares of blanket bog alongside other important habitats such as valley mires, upland heath and its wonderful woodlands.  Nature needs scale and heterogeneity to flourish.  Dartmoor can provide this. What we must provide is the ambition and wherewithal to make it happen.  And this becomes a test of the promised 25 year plan for environment.  What measures will be included in the plan to benefit Dartmoor's people and wildlife?  Will there be new incentives to drive the changes we need to restore habitats and protect species?  Will there be new obligations and resources for organisations to work together to reconcile their competing priorities?  Will there be regular monitoring, reporting and scrutiny to assess progress?  

    Because of the growing importance of Dartmoor to the wildlife of Devon,  attention is increasingly focused on the major landowners such as the Duchy of Cornwall, the National Park authority, South West Water but also the Commoners that have the rights to graze more than a third of the Park.  We need these key players to work with charities like the RSPB and Devon Wildlife Trust to rally around an exciting vision for the future for Dartmoor, with wildlife at its heart, and then to work hard to make it happen.  Get it right, and then we will have done our bit for threatened wildlife of Devon including those summer migrants where improved breeding success can buy us time while we work with others to fix problems across their flyway.   

    One final thought, as today is international biodiversity day, whether on Dartmoor or elsewhere I hope you get out to see some wildlife.

    *I refer, of course, to Professor Sir John Lawton and his seminal report, Making Space for Nature 

    Andy Hay's image of a wood warbler in Dartmoor (


  • Research confirms the EU Nature Directives help the UK meet its international nature conservation commitments

    Earlier this year I pointed out to the UK Parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee that comprehensive international agreements for nature conservation and the environment, together with a robust and enforceable governance framework, are essential.

    As the spring migration season demonstrates – nature does not respect borders. In fact, as you read this, I shall be up in the Cairngorms with the family hopefully showing my children one of our most charismatic migrants – the osprey.

    Chris Gomersall's fabulous image of an osprey in flight (

    The question of how the “Leave” and “Remain” campaigns would ensure an enforceable, international approach to nature conservation, whatever the result of the EU referendum vote, is a key element of the challenge we issued to both last month. You will be able to read the responses from both camps very soon.

    The need for a coordinated international approach to nature conservation was a driving force behind the adoption of the 1979 EU Birds Directive and the 1992 EU Habitats Directive (the Nature Directives). The Nature Directives place a responsibility on all members of the EU, including the UK, to protect the most threatened species and the most important sites, and together they form the foundation of nature conservation across the EU.

    Regular readers will know that the two Nature Directives are currently the subject of a Fitness Check, launched by the European Commission, intended to assess whether they are fit for purpose. We are currently awaiting the final results of the Fitness Check, and although the evidence gathering phase of this process is concluded, RSPB scientists have produced further evidence of the importance of these groundbreaking laws.

    In July last year, I welcomed my colleague Dr Paul Donald (here), Principle Conservation Scientist at the RSPB, to talk about research he had done into how effective the Birds Directive is for nature conservation. His research confirmed that in the Birds Directive we have an international conservation policy that actually works for our more threatened species.

    Well Paul is not a man to rest on his laurels. He has been doing further research to help answer one of the key questions posed by the Commission for the Fitness Check, “How coherent are the Directives with international and global commitments on nature and biodiversity?”

    In a paper recently published in the journal Conservation Letters, by scientists from the RSPB Centre for Conservation Science, we have analysed the contributions of the Nature Directives to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and other Multilateral Environmental Agreements. You can read the paper here.

    The findings demonstrate the importance of the Nature Directives for fulfilling the UK’s international obligations. For example the Natura 2000 network makes a very significant contribution to achieving the CBD target to protect 17% of terrestrial areas, while EU species protection rules help achieve the target to prevent the “extinction of known threatened species”, and ensure that their “conservation status... has been improved”, as well as contributing to wildlife conservation objectives under other international agreements.

    The impacts of the Nature Directives extend beyond just nature conservation; as 65% of EU citizens live within 5 km of a Natura 2000 site, and 98% within 20 km, these sites have the potential to raise awareness of biodiversity and to deliver ecosystem services to a high proportion of the EU’s population.

    Indeed evidence submitted to the Fitness Check confirms that Natura 2000 sites are estimated to receive between 1.2 and 2.2 billion visitor days each year, and offer the opportunity for greater engagement by the public and stakeholder groups (landowners, hunters, farmers etc.) in nature conservation, as well as supporting the growth of volunteer networks of site support groups and citizen scientists.

    Some of RSPB’s most visited reserves, Titchwell and Minsmere, are part of the Natura 2000 network, as are many of our other reserves. Achievements like this are worth celebrating, and hot on the heels of the Natura 2000 award given to RSPB’s Dove Stones last week, RSPB’s Futurescapes project is in line to receive a LIFE Nature and Biodiversity award as part of the Green Week celebrations which take place this week in Brussels and across Europe.

    You can read more about Futurescapes here and about Green Week 2016 here.

    Paul Donald’s research also confirms that the Nature Directives are helping to achieve climate change mitigation targets by storing carbon. Estimated below and above ground carbon stocks per unit area in Natura 2000 sites are 43% higher than the average across the rest of the EU.

    Of course, it is impossible to say what the EU would have been like without the Nature Directives, but there is ample evidence that they have yielded additional benefits over and above what would have been expected. For example, over 50% of Natura 2000 sites are not covered by any other form of protected area designation. Countries that have joined the EU show substantial increases in their coverage by protected areas around the time of accession, and increases in the populations of target species post-accession. Even in the UK, which has a longer history of conservation legislation than most countries, the Institute for European Environmental Policy has found that “[the] Directives have added a layer of protection for nature ... above and beyond that provided in previous national legislation”.

    Other International agreements the Nature Directives help the UK and other EU Member States fulfil include the Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats (Bern Convention; 1979), the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS, or Bonn Convention; 1979) and the Convention on Wetlands (Ramsar Convention; 1971).

    This research shows that the Nature Directives provide a regulatory framework that, with fuller implementation, will help EU Member States to meet their obligations under the CBD and other international agreements, and lends further weight to calls from RSPB through the #DefendNature campaign, from the BirdLife Europe partnership and other NGO networks involved in the #NatureAlert campaign, as well as from the European Parliament and EU Member States for these Directives to be better implemented.

    Of course, the result of the EU referendum could have a significant impact on how international protection for UK birds is delivered in future which is why I encourage you to keep an eye on this blog to find out what both campaigns have to say.