Martin Harper's blog

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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 impact of Gola Rainforest in Sierra Leone (part 2): a focus on threatened species

    My pre-dawn walk through Gola Rainforest in Sierra Leone was rewarded with a perfect view of the elusive White-necked Picathartes sitting on its nest.    I say ‘elusive’ as this was how Sir David Attenborough branded the bird for his famous 1952 Zoo Quest programme.  Today, the Gola Rainforest National Park team know all the Picathartes colonies so for us it was simply a case of getting to the right place at the right time.

    Sadly, the Picathartes did not hang around for long and once it was off its nest, it became elusive once more as it disappeared into the forest never to be seen again.

    Not my photo! My colleague, Guy Shorrock took this brilliant picture of White-necked Picathartes a few years ago (  I just managed a photo of an empty nest

    While the Picathartes is the pin-up bird for the National Park even featuring on its logo, it is just one of more than 60 species listed as threatened on the IUCN red list.  The primary task of the National Park is therefore to protect the forest. 

    When we arrived in Gola, we were first met by the National Park ranger team about to head out on patrol – one of 120 they were expecting to carry out this year.  Since the National Park was launched in 2011, the ranger team have cracked down on illegal hunting, forestry and mining.  The rangers have an impressive reputation and are now training rangers from other protected areas in Sierra Leone & Liberia.

    The good news is that their efforts are paying off and species are benefiting as a result.  For example, the National Park is home to a population of the critically endangered Western Chimpanzee.  This is a species which is vulnerable to habitat fragmentation, poaching and commercial agriculture. 

    Research we have done has shown that the chimps nest preferentially inside rather than outside the National Park. Thanks to the enforcement activities of the Park rangers, the chimp population is stable or increasing unlike nearly all the other chimp populations in West Africa.

    One of the many fabulous images taken by our camera traps in Gola (with thanks to Benjamin Barca)

    There is a similarly impressive story for the red colobus monkey as we have recently shown that its population is increasing to the south of the Park.  This is really promising as red colobus monkeys are good indicators of primary forest and it suggests that the forest in that part of the National Park is recovering following previous selective logging before the park designation.

    For our carbon financing work, we need to show that we are preventing deforestation in the park and the surrounding community lands. And we believe the National Park activities are working.   That’s good news for the climate, but also good news for some of the most critically endangered species on the planet.

    This is why the RSPB will continue to support Gola Rainforest.  We have shown that by working with local partners and the Sierra Leonean government, we can help protect this global asset.  We are in it for the long haul and want to do what we can so that the Park team have long term sustainable funding to allow it to continue to protect the forest in perpetuity.  

  • When is a step forward, actually a step back?

    Guest blog from my colleague, Chris Corrigan, the RSPB’s England Director.

    Headlines are important. They’re the first things we see and in many cases are often the only thing we read. But of course, they aren’t the whole story. Achieving positive change takes a lot more than a catchy headline, it requires real commitment to turn a positive headline into reality.

    Take Defra’s 25 year plan. It contains a lot of laudable aims. Given the range of what it has to cover, it’s light on detail in many places, but it contains a lot of good headlines.

    One of those headlines sets out the need to restore England’s peatlands.  We agree, as does the Committee on Climate Change.

    Over 70,000 ha of our most important blanket bogs in northern England are being regularly burned on driven grouse moors, causing long-term damage to these special places. The burning of blanket bog is carried out on grouse moors to encourage increased heather growth to provide more food for grouse and increase the number available to shoot.

    Blanket bogs are globally important with a large proportion found in the UK.  When they are in good health, with a good cover of peat forming Sphagnum mosses, they lock up climate change-causing carbon from the atmosphere, improve water quality and slow the rate of water running off the bog.  In contrast, water runs off burnt bog more rapidly during storm events making local places further down the hills more vulnerable to flooding. Scientific evidence (including from Natural England and Defra) clearly shows that burning damages blanket bog function and sets back restoration at least 10 years.

    So obviously we agree with Defra that the restoration of these important habitats is vital, both for the important wildlife they support and the benefits they deliver for people. The way to do this is clear – block drains, revegetate bare peat and stop burning them.  Once these steps have been taken, the damaged bog will start to recover. Natural England (NE) claims it will do this by agreeing new, long-term plans with about 180 grouse moor estates, turning the headline into reality.

    But, and it is a big but, the RSPB has reviewed NE’s first four long-term plans with grouse moor estates and we feel they fall a long way short of what’s needed. The latest is for Walshaw Moor in the south Pennines and the plan fundamentally fails to turn the fine headline into real change.

    Blanket bogs need water, not fire

    To cut a long and complicated story short, the plan for Walshaw creates so many loopholes, that the headline of ending burning on blanket bog becomes next to meaningless. It allows burning to continue under the guise of “restoration burning”, including on very healthy blanket bog. There is no evidence this works – and plenty to suggest it doesn’t.  Blanket bogs should be wet on the surface – they need water, not fire.  And decisions on how to manage the bogs are to be made by the estate owner with apparently very little monitoring by NE itself.

    NE’s current approach will continue to fail. Rather than focussing on securing healthy blanket bogs and allowing land management compatible with that objective, it seems to be looking at things the wrong way round: allowing a little bit of healthy blanket bog, as long as it doesn’t affect a grouse moor too much.

    Burning by the back door is still burning

    However you dress it up, burning by the back door is still burning. We urgently need significant change and for Defra to revisit NE’s approach to ensure it puts special places (and the reason they are so special) first. This is the only way to meet targets set out in the 25-year plan and by the Committee on Climate Change 

    As part of this, Defra needs to provide NE with more resources, specialists and space to operate, ensuring it has the capacity to deliver nature conservation, not economic outcomes. We also need a new world-leading environmental watchdog with oversight of, and the ability to hold to account all public bodies, including Defra and its agencies.

    One of the criticisms of the 25-year plan was that it was just a nice headline and wouldn’t really result in any action. This is one of the first real tests and it already appears to have failed.

    And, while we’re on the subject of things which seem to get in the way of intensive grouse moor management, a quick word on hen harriers. We’ve received a few questions about how we intend to respond to Natural England’s ridiculous decision to licence a trial brood management scheme of hen harriers. First of all, to be absolutely clear, we are completely opposed to this.  We are carefully considering all the details available about the licensed trial and seeking legal advice so we can decide how best to respond.

  • 2018: The year of women

    One hundred years ago today, women first won the right to vote in the UK. Today, we will be celebrating this milestone, as my colleague, Alison Enticknap, looks back at the RSPB’s own female pioneers and their relationship with the suffrage movement.

    The Representation of the People Act of 1918 enabled women to vote for the first time. It wasn’t all women at first, but it was a start. The more militant “suffragettes” get most of the publicity but it is possible that the more moderate “suffragists”, such as Millicent Garrett Fawcett (who this month will become the first woman to be commemorated with a statue in London’s Parliament Square), had a greater influence on the outcome.

    The RSPB’s pioneers

    Of course, the RSPB is one of many charities to have been founded by pioneering women. The Society for the Protection of Birds (SPB) was founded by Emily Williamson in Didsbury, Manchester in 1889. Mrs Williamson was active on a range of women’s issues, also setting up the Gentlewomen’s Employment Association in Manchester, and the Princess Christian Training College for Nurses. Her Loan Training Fund was also created to help support more women into further education.

    The SPB later merged with the Fur, Fin and Feather Folk, formed in Croydon by Eliza Phillips and her neighbour, Margaretta “Etta” Smith. Etta Smith married the barrister Frank Lemon in 1892 and it was the formidable “Mrs Lemon” who was a driving force of the RSPB for more than 50 years. Mrs Lemon was a tireless campaigner and was deeply mistrustful of ornithologists, believing them to be hostile to the efforts of the RSPB to curb the activities of egg and skin collectors.

    Picture: Mrs Lemon, a tireless campaigner and a driving force of the RSPB for more than 50 years

    The RSPB and the suffrage

    Do not assume, however, that philanthropic women like Mrs Williamson and Mrs Lemon, or that other leading light of the RSPB, the Duchess of Portland, were automatically supporters of women’s suffrage. The truth is more complex and nuanced. Many well-meaning champions of women such as Mrs Williamson are better described as “maternalistic” and their support and patronage of women’s issues stopped short of thinking that women should be granted the vote, as this was a radical point of view at that time.Mrs Lemon, for example, was quite outspokenly and actively anti-suffrage. In fact, she was the Chair of the East Surrey branch of the Anti-Suffrage League, feeling strongly that women should be recognised and celebrated on their own terms, not by becoming more like the men. Indeed, it was some of the RSPB’s pioneering men, including the likes of sometime Foreign Secretary Lord Edward Grey, who were ultimately more prominent on the votes for women issue.

    This was not unique to the RSPB. The National Trust’s founder, Octavia Hill, was also implacably opposed to women’s suffrage.

    Another awkward truth is that the RSPB’s primary cause – to end the use of threatened species’ feathers as fashion accessories – occasionally pitted them directly against the suffragettes. Feathers, and especially feathers in hats, were part of the suffragettes’ identity and “brand” (photographs of Emmeline Pankhurst frequently depict her sporting hats topped with an ostentatious plume). Mrs Lemon doubtless fired off an acerbic letter, as was her custom, to any suffrage campaigner seen wearing the wrong type of feather.


    Celebrating diversity

    What should we take from this? That we should be somehow ashamed of our founding women because they weren’t on the frontline of the fight for the suffrage? Not at all. As with most campaigning issues, people don’t divide neatly into camps. If two people take the same position on one issue, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll be in agreement on another. They may even agree on the issue but disagree on the ideal outcome, or how to achieve it.

    So, in 2018, let’s celebrate that great step towards equality that was made in 1918, thanks to the efforts of those brave and progressive women (and enlightened men) who made it happen. And celebrate the philanthropic pioneers, like Emily Williamson and Octavia Hill, who not only worked tirelessly to improve the education and living conditions of women, but also broke new ground on other issues and causes.

    But don’t assume they were all chaining themselves to railings or hurling themselves in front of horses. Some of the more influential ones were writing letters to newspapers and advocating change via quiet and rational debate on the “inside track”. There’s more than one way to skin a cat and it’s important to recognise that the defining characteristic of effective social movements is an inherent diversity of people and approaches.