Martin Harper's blog

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
  • Why Saturday's Walk for Wildlife matters

    When we conceived the first State of Nature report in 2013, we wanted to create a common evidence base about about what was happening to our wildlife in the UK and on the 14 UK Overseas Territories.  Our hope was that this would unite the sector to provide a shared message to politicians and other decision-makers to stimulate action.

    With the 2013 and 2016 reports, compiled mainly thanks to the dedication of thousands of volunteer naturalists, I think we succeeded in our first objective: the headline statistics have been used by loads of different organisations and individuals and are now central to nature conservation conversation across the UK. 

    Ben Andrew's picture of a turtle dove - our fast declining migratory bird (rspb-images.com)

    But has the action followed?

    The glass half-full view would be that...

    ...we have secured positive public commitments from governments such as (in England) the ambition to restore nature in a generation and the desire to ensure environmental protection is the centrepiece of the future agriculture subsidy system with the prospect of new legislation (including an Environment Bill) or for the promise of 4 million square kilometres of marine protected areas around UK Overseas Territories

    The glass half-empty view would be that...

    ...action on the ground has yet to match these words.  Daft development proposals on protected sites for a golf course in East Sutherland, houses in Kent and motorway relief road on the Gwent Levels have yet to be kicked into touch.  We have had to fight to keep what we already have (through the defence of the nature directives and legal challenges).

    ...funding for nature conservation has collapsed over the past decade and there are no current plans to replace the £428 million that will be lost when we leave the European Union.

    ...illegal killing of wildlife (such as birds of prey) continues

    ...the nation's most important wildlife sites are not being adequately monitored and of those that have been assessed, just a third are in favourable condition.  Just 4% of UK Overseas Territories on land are protected

    ...we have yet to find a way to reduce the ecological footprint as demonstrated by the risk to tropical deforestation posed by UK consumption of commodities such as palm oil, beef and cocoa

    It is easy to conclude that our current path of economic development continues to come at the expense of the natural world.

    And that's why Chris Packham's Walk for Wildlife on Saturday 22 September matters.

    We need to demonstrate to politicians that people care about wildlife and that our current path is just not good enough.  We need a new approach that grows our prosperity and restores the natural world.  This starts with strong environment legislation but must be backed up by resources and institutions that enforce the laws and holds government to account for its actions.

    We need to create an build an unstoppable movement for change. People provide the space for politicians to act locally, nationally and globally so we need to harness the public passion for nature and turn it into political pressure. It is our job, anywhere in the world, to make it desirable for politicians to act for nature and to raise the cost of political failure.

    So, this Saturday, come to London, show you care and take part in the Walk for Wildlife.

  • Good news for a Friday: I have good taste

    Earlier this week, our tropical forest team invited colleagues to do a blind chocolate tasting session including samples made from cocoa grown by Sierra Leone farmers in Gola Forest.

    I was in London that day but pulled rank and asked for some samples to be set aside so I could take part in the tasting later in the week.

    I am glad that I did. Because having assessed each of the four milk and dark chocolate samples, I rated the Gola products the best.

    Clearly, my palate is able to distinguish between chocolate that supports rainforest conservation rather than one that doesn’t!

    The good news is that others will soon be able to taste Gola chocolate for themselves as we intend to sell bars through our reserves and catalogue early next year.

    And behind the chocolate bar lies an important message: what you consume can help or hinder efforts to save the planet.

    From research that WWF and the RSPB did published earlier this year, we know that UK consumption of commodities such as cocoa, palm oil and coffee can, unless well-managed, lead to further tropical deforestation.

    We want to show that there is a different way.

    Earlier in the year, I saw first-hand the work we were doing with farmer cooperatives in Gola. By creating a sustainable supply chain of cocoa, we are helping to provide alternative livelihoods for the people that live in and around the forest.  This takes pressure off the forest and engenders more support for the Gola Forest National Park.

    We plan to tell that story to our supporters and I hope that many people buy the bars. The more demand we create for Gola-friendly chocolate, the better it is for the Gola farmers and ultimately for the forest itself.

    And that really would be good news.

  • Agriculture Bill - over the first hurdle?

    Yesterday, I wrote about the importance of the upcoming Agriculture Bill for the environment, and wondered whether Defra would clear this early hurdle in its quest for a ‘Green Brexit’.

    I am glad to say that, having read Defra’s press notice issued today, the early signs are good.

    Andy Hay's image of a skylark (rspb-images.com)

    Once we have had a chance to digest the content of the Bill, I will offer further reflections later in the week. But for now, the Defra press release offers a positive outline statement of intent about where they want to go with a future policy, echoing much of what was good in their Health and Harmony consultation paper from earlier in the year.

    Reading the headlines, it is clear that Defra has…

    …reiterated the intention to focus the majority of public money on public goods – those things that we all need from land, but which we cannot pay for at the till, such as more wildlife, clean water and carbon storage

    …identified environmental protection as a particular focus with a future environmental land management policy as the “centrepiece of the Government’s new approach to farm payments”

    …committed to “maintaining a strong regulatory baseline, with enforcement mechanisms that are proportionate and effective”

    In short, this is a welcome statement of intent about this Government’s future policy ambitions.

    There are gaps and weak points – very few Government announcements would be complete without them. The intended transition period is longer than we think necessary, and there are no obvious mechanisms to enable cooperation between the four Governments of the UK.

    The big unresolved issue though is funding.

    As expected, there is no clarity on how the Government intend to fund their Green Brexit beyond the existing commitment to maintain the current level of expenditure to 2022. This will be our priority for the passage of the Bill as it progresses through Parliament and through the upcoming Spending Review. This is something which we should be able to strike common cause with all farming unions. The resources made available to back up the new policy will ultimately be the key test as to whether this Bill is a success or failure.

    For now, this feels like an important step forward - improving the sustainability of farming is key to realising the UK Government’s ambitions to restore nature in a generation.

    Today’s announcement suggests that Ministers are taking this challenge seriously.