22nd Dec - Martin Harper, RSPB Director of Conservation
As Director of Conservation for the RSPB, the overall direction and policy position of the whole charitable organisation falls largely on Martin Harper's shoulders.
There was a time – not all that long ago – when Harper was considered a pretty rational fellow driven by science and realities, rather than by short-term political popularity and financial gain.
In an interview with the Observer in 2015 he even praised the role of managed shoots in protecting wildlife, saying: “The contribution progressive shoots can make to supporting threatened wildlife is significant, and we are delighted to help them further. This isn’t a contradiction. We simply do whatever nature needs and will work with anyone that wants to help wildlife.”
Fast forward five years and gosh, how things have changed.
Where once farmers and landowners would welcome Harper, and indeed many of his RSPB colleagues, onto their land to carry out surveys and conduct research, nowadays few would allow the RSPB anywhere near their land. It is perhaps unsurprising given that there is so much more wildlife on private land than on any RSPB reserve.
The trust in the relationship between RSPB and landowners or farmers has been shattered under Harper’s stewardship – despite him reportedly earning a salary of between £131,309 and £175,879 a year.
Rather than uniting all parties Harper has allowed the RSPB’s approach to conservation to disenfranchise great swathes of the countryside.
The losers in all this, of course, are the UK’s biodiverse and protected areas as well as red listed bird species – species that the RSPB ought to devote themselves to protecting and helping.
In 2020 for example, data showed that the failure to provide adequate gull control licenses to landowners after campaigns by Wild Justice led to eyewitnesses recording 1,355 predation events on lapwings, curlews and golden plover. These are just the one that were seen; just imagine how many more took place.
The RSPB know that this is happening, yet Harper thinks nothing of boasting on his online profile the fact that he has previously commissioned the Wild Justice founder, Mark Avery, to write blogs fulfilling his purpose. He states: “We asked Mark to write a series of blogs on the run up to the +20 conference because we knew he would produce well-written, interesting and challenging articles. And he did!”.
Harper knows more than anyone the conservation failures that the RSPB's actions cause; which is perhaps why the RSPB seems to have strayed so far from its charitable objective of protecting birds, in order to find success stories: because there are so few success stories directly related to birds.
In Harper’s round-up of the year – which he published on his blog last week – he outlined a list of 11 key conservation successes that the RSPB have achieved in this year.
Out of the 11 recorded successes only one – the refusal of planning permission for a golf course in Could Links due to breeding bird habitat – could be argued as being entirely driven by a desire to protect birds. The other ten, some of which are extremely admirable, were largely big picture environmental based and largely focused on international aims.
The Charity Commission have been very clear that charities should focus solely on the objective they were set up for. In the RSPB’s case, that is to protect birds. However, it was recently reported to us that when the RSPB were questioned in a private meeting on their support for windfarms, the response was: “Birds must die for the greater good of the planet.”
That is perhaps a position that could be argued both ways; but surely not by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.
The relationship between the RSPB and the farming and shooting community has been made worse by constant duplicitousness and continued misrepresentation of facts in order to serve what many perceive to be the RSPB's political agenda against the shooting community.
In a recent presentation Harper gave to the Shooting and Conservation APPG he chose to misrepresent the Government’s recent decision on releasing around special protection areas by stating that the government was convinced there was harm being done. In fact, the evidence suggested that any damage is localised, limited and reversible.
Defra felt compelled to act because EU law requires action unless any harm can be excluded, and Natural England had no research to prove this negative was not the case. That is very different to Harper suggesting that harm is being caused or that there is evidence of significant harm.
Interestingly, during the presentation Harper chose this time to distinguish between heather burning on heath and burning on bog. Yet at the same time, the RSPB are running a public campaign on social media and online using only the emotive language of ‘ban the burn’. A campaign which appears to purposely mislead both the public and policy makers.
This tactic of saying one thing in private and another in public is common across Harper's organisation. There are numerous occasions in the past when RSPB officials would visit a moor or farmland where shooting takes place and heaped praise on the owners at the time – only to then entirely contradict their position in public soon after.
Is it any wonder that the rural communities across the country have run out of patience for this man? The shooting, farming and wider rural communities have been keen to work with the RSPB for many years. They know that many of the practices they observe for the benefit of their animals and birds provide perfect habitats for rare and protected bird species to thrive, and have made all this available in the past to the RSPB - along with more reputable organisations like the BTO - to show them how they can improve the work they already do. But the aggressive anti-shooting agenda that the RSPB portray in public has, sadly, extinguished any trust that these communities once had in our national birdlife charity. Harper must take personal responsibility for much of that.