Martin Harper's blog

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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 unknown

    Six weeks ago, I made a mistake.

    I was asked to take part in an event at RSPB Weekend – an adaptation of the TV quiz show, The Chase. The idea was that I would be the all-knowing Chaser up against contestants and the RSPB member audience.

    “It'll be fun, the members will love it, you’ll be great”, I was told.

    I had a nagging feeling that it might not be fun for me, that I might not be great and that the risk of personal humiliation was high. But I suppressed those fears and dutifully agreed to take part.

    Our “Wild Goose Chase” took place on Friday night on the first day of RSPB Weekend and, you guessed, it didn’t go well. I found out what I think I knew already: that there are things that I just don’t know (such as old folk names for common sandpiper) and that there are things I know, but I forget (for example that Rathlin Island has an upside-down lighthouse).

    I took those disappointments on the chin.

    What annoyed me were the things that I should have known but didn’t. Why didn’t I know that white-tailed eagles disappeared from the UK in 1918 rather than 1818? If 1918, surely we’d be marking the centenary of this event by celebrating the remarkable recovery of this fabulous bird. Unknown to me at the time was that we had been celebrating its return, that we’d featured the story in Nature’s Home magazine and that Dave Sexton was going to be telling the story of Mull Eagles the next day – which he did rather brilliantly.

    After a short period of self-flagellation about this, I decided to acknowledge my own inadequacy and accept that I don’t know everything that our charity is doing. Instead, I revelled in the fact that, as always, I learn a lot from RSPB Weekend. So, that’s how I spent my weekend – listening and learning.

    Thanks to Ellie Owen, I now know that the volunteers contributing to the Puffarazi citizen science project (through 1,402 photos of puffins with fish in beaks allowing Ellie’s team to identify 12,000 items of prey) not only provided vital information about  the red-listed puffin diet but their gift of time was worth £100,000. A montage of their work is shown below and I am delighted that we shall be repeating the survey this year.

    Thanks to Rory Crawford, I now know that the number of seabirds being killed by gillnet fisheries (>400,000 seabirds a year mainly in the Baltic Sea) is more than longline and trawler fisheries combined. While mitigation methods are not as advanced as for reducing bycatch from longlining, fishermen and BirdLife International partners have a shared ambition to tackle the gillnet bycatch crisis. This gives us confidence that we should be to report positive progress soon.

    Thanks to Jen Smart and her excellent talk about women in science, I now know that Darwin was not as enlightened as I thought.  He once wrote in an 1882 letter to scientist and advocate for women’s rights Caroline Kennard: “I certainly think that women though generally superior to men [in] moral qualities are inferior intellectually”.  I hope we all know that we have more to do to tackle our own conscious and unconscious biases.

    Thanks to Paul Morrison and his groovy virtual reality headset, I now know what it is like to be immersed in Coquet Island’s roseate tern colony.

    Thanks to Dave Sexton, I now know that I must visit Mull to see the white-tailed eagles – where the first eagle chick fledged in 1985 nearly ten years after the reintroduction project began on Rum. Today, Scotland boasts 118 pairs.

    Thanks, as always, to the RSPB’s members, I know what I’ve known for a long time: they want us to remain passionate, ambitious and successful for nature.

    And finally, thanks to my experience this weekend, I now know to avoid displaying my ignorance in public in the future. Well, I can but try.

  • Working together across the UK for nature’s recovery

    A year from today, the UK will cease to be a member of the EU.

    We’re facing a potential ‘cliff edge’ in terms of environmental governance – the means by which we ensure our environmental legislation is properly enforced – and the clock is ticking. This is why, with our partners in Greener UK, we are today launching a call to arms to governments across the UK.

    Under the legislation and governance arrangements offered by the European Union, we have managed to protect sites and restore some threatened species, but action has been insufficient to stem the losses.  For the UK Government to realise its ambition of restoring nature in a generation, before exiting the European Union, it must take action maintain and bolster existing levels of environmental protection and governance. That is why, with our partners in Greener UK, we're calling on the Westminster Government, in particular, to commit to a Environment Act. This would enshrine in law ambitious and measurable goals for nature’s recovery, strong principles and the ‘world-leading environmental watchdog’ promised by Michael Gove back in January.

    We’ll come back to each of these asks in future blogs. For now, I’d like to introduce our England Director, Chris Corrigan, on the crucial issue of four country cooperation for nature’s recovery.

    Gannet by Danny Green (

    “As regular readers of Martin’s blog will know all too well, nature knows no borders. Our membership of the EU has held all four countries of the UK to the same environmental laws and governance, so close cooperation and common standards have been hard-wired. When we leave the EU for the sake of nature that knows no borders, we will need to establish new processes to ensure this close collaboration continues.

    That’s why we have been working with colleagues across the four countries of the UK to better understand how our nations might collaborate to tackle the governance gap for nature in 2019. This text below signed by RSPB directors for the four countries of the UK explains our thinking so far, and calls upon the governments in the UK countries to move forward together.”  Chris Corrigan, England Director, RSPB

    The four nations of the UK are home to a diverse and special set of species and habitats. Each country has its own iconic landscapes and seascapes to celebrate and protect, from mountains, woods and moors to sea cliffs, sea caves and reefs. However, nature does not recognise political boundaries. Rivers, mountains and seas naturally cross borders and many of our most threatened species regularly move between the four nations and beyond. Likewise, actions in any one country can have far-reaching impacts on nature elsewhere. We all have a responsibility to protect and restore our shared natural heritage for current and future generations to enjoy. And we can only achieve this by working together.

    Powers to manage our natural environment (including our agriculture and fisheries) are largely devolved to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. However, environmental legislation across all four nations is currently guided by common EU frameworks such as the overarching environmental standards that the UK as a whole is bound by as an EU Member State. For very good reason the EU has promoted cooperation and collaboration on transboundary environmental issues that affect us all – including for the protection of our wildlife.

    There are many reasons why this cooperation and collaboration must continue. Our natural environment faces huge challenges – including pollution of our rivers, air and seas, the alarming decline of some of our most important and iconic species and the growing impacts of climate change. These challenges will not be easily overcome, but we stand a far better chance if we work together across the UK and beyond, ensuring that standards remain high, that species and habitats are effectively protected as they move between countries, and that our laws are effectively enforced.

    A healthy future for our natural world requires robust, independent and well-resourced institutions to hold all our governments and public bodies to account. Currently, EU institutions play a vital role in upholding environmental standards across the four nations. For example, they allow individuals and NGOs to raise concerns about how our environmental legislation is being implemented and enforced – providing the environment with a voice on the ground. Without a suitable set of replacement institutions, our exit from the EU will create a serious ‘governance gap’ across the four nations.

    Thankfully, the importance of filling this governance gap has now been recognised to a greater or lesser extent by all four nations. For example, the governments in Cardiff Bay, Holyrood, and Westminster have all committed to bringing forward proposals to fill this gap in their respective jurisdictions. It remains to be seen how these proposals will achieve the collaboration and coordination necessary to ensure effective enforcement of our environmental legislation across the UK as a whole.

    We are calling on the governments of our four nations to work together for nature’s recovery. We need them to rapidly agree a process for co-designing new shared frameworks and robust and coordinated environmental governance mechanisms. This will ensure that all of us can work effectively for the benefit of nature, no matter where in the UK we are.

    A letter from you could encourage your Ministers to collaborate with their counterparts in the other nations. Please follow these links to find out more and how to contact your relevant Ministers:


    Northern Ireland



    Chris Corrigan, RSPB England Director; Anne McCall, RSPB Scotland Director; Joanne Sherwood, RSPB Northern Ireland Director; Katie-Jo Luxton, RSPB Cymru Director. 

  • The Fisheries White Paper – carp(e) diem!

    Last week’s fishery drama, with its angry fishermen and jettisoning of haddock in the Thames, was widely reported by the media and a gift for the headline writers.  But there was little sign of push back on the bigger questions.  What is the sea for, and who does (or should) it, serve and benefit?  What is the most rational way to manage and share a marine environment which, while harbouring a much more granular mix of habitats than at first sight, is in another sense seamless? Fish don’t have passports!  These serious questions need to be asked if we are to raise the tenor of the debate and inform the direction of the UK’s emerging new fisheries policy.  So I have asked our fisheries expert, Dr Euan Dunn to outline our expectations for the forthcoming Fisheries White Paper.    

    In the run-up to the June referendum in 2016, the pro-leave Fisheries Minister George Eustice looked forward to the UK having “a more assertive role in promoting sustainable fisheries on the world stage” (  We greatly welcome the aspiration to demonstrate global leadership on this front, but with the consultation on the UK Government’s fisheries White Paper expected imminently, as a scene-setter for the Fisheries Bill to follow, it’s time to assess how it should match the minister’s high water mark of ambition. 

    As a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to secure sustainable fisheries in our waters for the long term, the stakes could not be higher for the White Paper.  The UK should not be shy in admitting that it championed the most recent reform of the Common Fisheries Policy which was a real step change in driving the green shoots of fish stock recovery we are now witnessing.  The White Paper should capture the best of that but also build in innovative and robust, fresh thinking on how best to recover depleted stocks, fish them sustainably, and – unpopular as it is in parts of the industry – keep the hammer down on the grossly wasteful discarding of fish.  The right balance of such measures will deliver the prosperous future for fishing communities we all want to see.

    We can expect that the White Paper’s priority will be to presage not just the slim Fisheries Bill that enables fishing to be operational on Day 1 after the Brexit transitional period (in terms of fish quota arrangements, access to our waters, and necessary controls) but also to frame the expansive secondary legislation needed to flesh out the bold new world of UK fisheries policy.  Underpinning this new framework we want to see explicit recognition that fishing opportunities are a public good for the benefit of all and managed with the transparency and accountability that this entails. 

    However, that our waters are not the ringed assets of the fishing industry speaks to a wider challenge for the White Paper.  It is now widely accepted that the sea is not just a factory floor for the fishing industry, rather fish stocks – as a vital part of the food web – cannot be divorced from considering the marine ecosystem at large.  This might seem obvious but it is a measure of the extent to which this spurious separation was made by decades of mismanagement that led to gross over-fishing, an issue only now being remedied.  Fishing has also inflicted gross collateral damage on other elements of the ecosystem, but we now know much more about how to tackle such excesses.  The recently published Defra 25 Year Environment Plan recognises this challenge and sets out the ambition to create a world-class fisheries management system that helps to restore and protect the marine ecosystem. It just takes political will to implement this vision. 

    And here’s where the White Paper can make real cut-through.  What we need is not a fisheries manifesto with environmental add-ons but a truly integrated policy in which the environmental dimension is joined at the hip.  In fisheries-speak this means that at the heart of the White Paper must be a topline objective to implement – just as the CFP already commits to – an ‘ecosystem approach’ to fisheries management and spell out the essentials of delivering that.  Nothing less will match up to the UK vision for the marine environment of ’clean, healthy, safe, productive and biologically diverse oceans and seas’ (   

    The RSPB seeks a White Paper that will pave the way to delivering on two ambitious challenges of an ecosystem approach.  Firstly, a comprehensive strategy to eliminate the incidental snaring and drowning of seabirds, marine mammals, sharks and turtles in fishing gear.  The UK has been in the vanguard of highlighting bycatch issues in Europe and now it has the chance to put in place its own world-leading, cross-taxa strategy, and to ramp up the monitoring needed to inform and enforce it.  Secondly, the North Sea sandeel fishery, in which the UK has no commercial interest, continues to be managed in such a way that there is insufficient ‘set-aside’ of sandeels as prey for declining seabird populations.  We see redressing this deficit as an acid test of ecologically sustainable fisheries and the White Paper is the window of opportunity for enabling it.  

    The UK is still playing catch-up with best practice in commercial fisheries elsewhere in the world, which requires that fishing adapts to nature, not the other way round.  The White Paper must seize the chance to embrace that mantra.