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
  • For the love of... Gola Rainforest

    This Valentine’s Day, as part of the Climate Coalition, the RSPB shall once again be calling for action to tackle climate change to protect the people and places we love.

    To support their #showthelove campaign I’ll be wearing a green heart on my sleeve as I head off this week to see the work that we are doing to protect a place lived in and loved by many: Gola Rainforest.

    I have previously written about our work in Gola (for example see here), but in this blog I share a bit more background to the project. At the end I explain how you can help.

    The RSPB has had a 28 year involvement in supporting action by BirdLife partners, local communities and governments to protect the Gola forests in Sierra Leone and, since 2009, also in Liberia.  These form part of the Upper Guinea forest ecosystem which is classified as one of the most important biodiversity hotspots in the world.  The Gola forests (shown in the map below) cover over 400,000 hectares and are home to sixty species of global conservation concern including White-necked Picathartes, Gola Malimbe and Pygmy Hippo.

    During my visit, I am looking forward to meeting our partners the Conservation Society of Sierra Leone and Society for the Conservation of Nature of Liberia while also seeing the work that we are doing within the forest and surrounding areas to build sustainable livelihoods for the local communities.

    Why does the RSPB work in Gola?

    While c85% of our conservation effort is focused within the UK, throughout our history, the RSPB has believed that we should take action globally where the need is great and where we can make a material difference to the conservation efforts of our BirdLife International partners.  That is why, for example, we have stepped in to support action to restore 100,000 hectares rainforest in Indonesia (Harapan), protect more than a million hectares of steppe in Kazakhstan (Altyn Dala) and help recover globally threatened species such as Asian vultures (SAVE), spoon-billed sandpipers and albatrosses (through the Albatross Task Force).  And it is why we continue to work in Gola. 

    These are all multi-decadal projects and while different from our commitment to places like Minsmere and Abernethy where we assume responsibility in perpetuity, we are determined to support these projects and our partners until sustainable funding is secure and conservation prospects are assured.

    The conservation and climate change case for action

    Protecting rainforests makes sense from both a conservation and a climate change perspective.  Rainforests provide homes for c74% of the world’s threatened birds and also play a critical role in removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.  Yet, rainforests continue to be lost at an alarming rate: currently estimated as 32,000 hectares of tropical rainforest lost daily, and another 32,000 hectares being degraded every day on top of that.  This not only threatens the future of some of the rarest species on the planet but also deforestation is a major contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions.  Deforestation accounts for around 18% of all global greenhouse gas emissions due to human activities – this is more than global emissions from transport.

    Whilst land use has long been a key part of tackling climate change its importance was thrown into stark relief by the Paris Agreement at the end of 2015. Its new goal to limit average temperature change to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels makes the conservation and enhancement of natural sinks and reservoirs of greenhouse gases both essential and urgent.

    This has been acknowledged at Gola in Sierra Leone, where enormous efforts have been made to understand the carbon value of the forest.  While the RSPB’s original motivation was to support efforts to protect the wildlife of Gola, the carbon benefits of keeping the trees standing have become clearer and is part of the solution to generating/securing sustainable sources of income by selling the value of the carbon to help protect and manage the forest.  We therefore, in 2014 established Gola as the first Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD) project in West Africa.  As well as conserving the forest, supporting the 114 communities that surround the forest, the project aims to conserve nearly 5 million tonnes of carbon dioxide by keeping it both locked in the forest and soils and by adding more as the forest regenerates. The project is independently verified against the two leading global standards (Verified Carbon Standard) and biodiversity and social impact (Climate, Community and Biodiversity Alliance Standard). 

    This is a form of carbon offsetting.  While the top priority must be to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in absolute terms, our view is that carbon offsetting can be a valuable source of funding to support conservation efforts.  So, we support offsetting projects when clear and exemplary biodiversity, carbon and social standards are adopted.   

    How you can help

    This is why, I have decided to purchase carbon credits as a way of paying for my own carbon footprint thereby contributing to the long term funding needs of Gola.  I would encourage you to consider doing the same.  With the Gola partners we have joined forces with Stand for Trees, a US charity helping projects like ours to sell our carbon credits on their website.  If you would like to help, simply go to here select ‘Protect a Forest’, choose your currency and find the Gola Project to buy your credits and receive a nice certificate for your efforts.

    Equally exciting is the partnership that we, and our Gola partners, have entered into with market leading climate and development experts, ClimateCare.  Through ClimateCare, businesses are now able to offset their unavoidable carbon emissions with the Gola Rainforest project. This helps the climate, protects crucial wildlife habitat and supports a raft of social and community benefits. You can read about new partnership here.

    You can help by prompting your own organisation to get involved and contact the ClimateCare team on 01865 591000 or email  

    Technology permitting, I shall try to share my impressions of Gola while I am away. Until then, please do #showthelove in the run up to this year’s Valentine’s Day.

  • Good news for World Wetlands Day: more progress for Yellow Sea conservation

    To mark World Wetlands Day, I have asked my colleague Nicola Crockford (who leads our policy work on migratory species) to share this great news for Spoon-billed Sandpipers and wetlands in East Asia...


    Extraordinarily good progress has been made in ensuring the conservation of the Yellow Sea, and therefore the future of the Spoon-billed Sandpipers and the many other species of threatened waterbirds that share the coasts of the East Asian Australasian Flyway.  All of a sudden there is real hope that their extinction can be prevented. 

    In January the Chinese State Oceanic Administration (SOA) introduced radically strong regulations to minimise and reverse damage to the Chinese coast from land claim and pollution.   Among other things, it prevents further damaging coastal land claim, stops developments that have been permitted but not started, restores habitat that has been illegally claimed and wrests power from the Provinces for permitting land claim developments.  

    This followed a historic meeting last December, hosted by Yancheng National Nature Reserve on the Yellow Sea coast of Jiangsu Province, China.   The RSPB worked with the IUCN and the East Asian Australasian Flyway Partnership to bring together the governments of China, North and South Korea to discuss the conservation of the Yellow Sea Coast. 

    Participants from the three countries agreed to collaborate for the conservation and management of the coastal wetlands of the Yellow Sea. What's more, it was announced that the boundary of the Yancheng proposed World Heritage Site would be extended south to include Tiaozini, the most important site in the World for Spoon-billed Sandpipers (as a staging and moulting site) which was hitherto slated for destruction by the world’s biggest coastal land claim project. The news from the SOA explains why that has been possible. 

    This is the result of a huge international effort which included the adoption of a resolution on  Promoting Conservation of Critical Intertidal and other coastal Habitats for Migratory Speciesin October by the 126 Parties of the UN Convention on Migratory Species.  Momentum should be maintained to establish a Global Coastal Forum jointly with the Ramsar and Biodiversity Conventions, and we look forward to reporting more progress after their meetings later this year.  This is good news globally for coastal wetlands and the future of the waterbirds that depend on them.


    You can read more about this story here.  

    It is heartening to see China provide such impressive conservation leadership. 

    We need more governments around the world to take similar steps to tackle the crisis facing our wild places and species.   

    Yet, the action in the Yellow Sea also bodes well for the crucial meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity which China will host in 2020.  This is the meeting that will set new conservation ambition and, we shall urge, tangible measures to boost efforts to restore biodiversity around the world.  

    I shall return to the 2020 challenge soon.  Today, though, spare a thought for the world's wetlands and pledge not just to enjoy them but also to protect them. 

  • An update on the licensing of driven grouse shooting in Scotland

    There is currently a petition initiated by Ed Hutchings to establish a system of licensing of driven grouse shooting in England.  While the case for reform is being made down south, I thought it would be timely to provide an update on what is happening north of the border. I have therefore asked my colleague, Duncan Orr-Ewing who is Head of Species and Land Management for RSPB Scotland, to provide an overview of what is happening and what we are doing in Scotland to achieve reform of driven grouse shooting.  As Duncan explains, welcome progress is being made which is why I would encourage you to support Ed Hutchings’ petition to raise political pressure to secure similar action in England. 

    Image by kind permission of Gary Woodburn


    In 1998 the Secretary of State for Scotland, the late Donald Dewar MSP, called the illegal killing of birds of prey in the country “a national disgrace”. Following the establishment of the Scottish Parliament shortly afterwards all political parties in power in Scotland up until the present day have taken a welcome and consistent approach towards combatting the illegal killing of birds of prey and other wildlife.

    It seems to be clearly understood by politicians north of the border that prevailing levels of wildlife crime are unacceptable and tarnish the country’s international reputation. As a result, new innovative measures have been brought in to tackle the perpetrators of these crimes and to act as a meaningful deterrent. For example, in the Wildlife and Natural Environment Act (Scotland) 2011, a measure called “vicarious liability” was introduced for crimes against birds of prey. In essence, this law allows landowners to be prosecuted for the actions of their employees unless they can prove systems of due diligence and that preventative steps have been taken. The Scottish Parliament now considers a report from the Scottish Government on wildlife crime annually, and scrutinises progress by the Police and Crown Office with prosecuting offences, in further recognition of widespread public concerns about this issue.

    However, despite these best efforts of Scotland’s Ministers over several decades, crimes against birds of prey in Scotland have been repeatedly shown to be occurring at high levels, impacting the populations of a number of our raptor species including golden eagles, hen harriers and peregrines. There is now overwhelming evidence to show that these crimes are primarily occurring on land managed for “driven” grouse shooting, and predominantly in the eastern Highlands and Southern Uplands. Indeed, sadly it would seem that illegal practices have become an entrenched part of many of these grouse moor estates’ “business model” in order to produce seemingly ever increasing grouse bags for clients to shoot. The work of RSPB Scotland’s Investigations and Conservation Science teams, and the efforts of voluntary Scottish Raptor Study Group fieldworkers, have been central to providing hard evidence of the scale and impact of wildlife crimes against our native raptor populations.

    Image courtesy of Tim Melling

    In May 1999, Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) published a report entitled “Analyses of the fate of satellite tracked golden eagles in Scotland”, which revealed the shocking statistic that 41 out of 131 (31%) marked birds had disappeared in suspicious circumstances.  Previously Scottish Natural Heritage’s Scientific Advisory Committee had also conducted a “Review of Sustainable Moorland Management” in 2015, which assessed the evidence behind impacts of raptor persecution and also other intensive management practices being deployed on “driven” grouse moors, including muirburn on peatland areas; the medication of wild red grouse; and the mass culling of mountain hares. The Scottish Parliament’s Environment Committee further scrutinised these issues in 2016 prompted by a public petition by the Scottish Raptor Study Groups calling for “a state regulated system of licensing of gamebird hunting”, supported by RSPB Scotland.         

    In response to growing public concerns, and the failure of the “driven” grouse moor landowners to self-regulate and bear down on criminal behaviours within its midst, the Cabinet Secretary for the Environment Climate Change and Land Reform, Roseanna Cunningham MSP, commissioned an independent enquiry at the end of May 2017 to “look at managing grouse moors sustainably and within the law” and “to recommend options for regulation including licensing and other measures which could be put in place without new primary legislation”. This independent enquiry panel is now meeting and expects to make its recommendations in mid-2019. The panel includes experts from legal, regulatory, land management, scientific, and nature conservation backgrounds. We hope to be called to give evidence to this enquiry in due course.

    The RSPB’s Council’s policy is to support  licensing of “driven” grouse moors to ensure that both the private and public interests in the way such land is managed are respected, and we will be advocating this approach to the independent grouse moor enquiry. Most other similar countries in Europe licence gamebird hunting in some form and we consider that this is a proportionate response to resolving current public concerns about the way “driven” grouse shooting in Scotland is being managed.  

    We can perhaps learn from the experiences of implementing licensing systems for gamebird hunting in other European countries, whilst also creating a bespoke system for Scottish circumstances. Other natural resources in Scotland, such as water, wild fisheries and deer are already managed within regulated systems, which can provide further helpful context.

    For us though, any effective licensing system for “driven” grouse shooting must provide sufficient and workable powers to SNH or Scottish Government officials to revoke grouse moor licences if there is clear evidence to the public authorities of criminal practice.

    Image by kind permission of Duncan Orr-Ewing

    Alongside such powers, the environmental and other public standards required by grouse moor managers could be set out in a statutory and updatable Code of Best Practice, informed by best science, and implemented through grouse moor management plans approved by SNH. An allied and fundamental part of most other country’s licensing systems for gamebird hunting is that gamebag returns are made to state nature conservation agencies, which in turn inform hunting quotas. Finally, we will also suggest that licence fees should be set at a level which makes the system self-financing and therefore does not incur costs to the public purse. 

    In most other European countries effective licensing systems protect the legitimate sporting interests of those many private landowners who currently respect wildlife protection laws, and there is no reason why this should not be the case in Scotland as well. 

    In summary, there has been a growing feeling in Scotland in recent years that current voluntary approaches promoted up until now by grouse moor managers are simply inadequate to curb the excesses of those who continue to break wildlife protection laws and manage our sensitive upland habitats unsustainably. The landowners who permit or promote wildlife crime have had repeated warnings by successive Scottish Ministers to either get their house in order or to expect firm action. The Scottish Government has rightly responded to public opinion by commissioning an independent enquiry which will look at how regulation of “driven” grouse moors can be implemented.

    Much is now expected from the eventual recommendations of the independent review of grouse moor management in Scotland.  A modern and transparent system of licensing of “driven” grouse shooting is now a genuine prospect in Scotland, and in our view would command significant public support. Other parts of the UK will hopefully look at progress in Scotland and follow in our footsteps in due course.