This is the text of the talk that I gave to the Earth Optimism event today.  You can watch it here or read on!


Hi, my name is Martin Harper and I am the Conservation Director of the RSPB.  I want to talk to you about the RSPB experience of transforming UK landscapes for wildlife, for the climate and for people. 

My intention is to add to the spirit of Earth Optimism by demonstrating that we know what it takes to improve the natural world because we have done it.  And I want to draw out some lessons to inspire others to do more.

In this talk, I want to illustrate the art of the possible by showcasing some of the work that the RSPB is doing to restore the UK’s mountains, moors and valley – or what are sometimes more prosaically called our uplands.

Nature is amazing

To get you in the mood, I want you to imagine that it’s dawn on a spring morning.  You are alone on a moor in the north of England.  It’s cold, but there is no wind and the sun is beginning to come through.  You settle down on a small tussock of grass and there in front of you are black and white birds strutting around making some strange calls.  You are watching male black grouse displaying at what is called a lek.  The bubbling calls and the posturing of the males are designed to attract a mate.  The females hang around and watch with interest as the males perform in front of them.  Eventually they choose the most impressive male.  

This is a species that has undergone massive population declines as a result of major land use change for agriculture and forestry.  Yet in parts of its range, conservation efforts are giving this most charismatic bird a lifeline and promise of a recovery.

You reluctantly decide to leave the lek and head up the hill where you pause as you glimpse a grey shape on the horizon.  It is a male hen harrier which has just taken flight and it begins the most astonishing aerial display.  This extravagant performance is designed to demonstrate strength and endurance and, like the black grouse, impress a watching female.  You wish him well because hen harrier remains the UK’s most persecuted bird - targeted because some believe they reduce the number of red grouse available for shooting.  Yet, you also know that good moorland management, nest protection and a team of dedicated investigators are working with the police to catch those criminals that trap, poison or shoot these wonderful birds meaning more of us can enjoy this spectacle.

Nature is in trouble

Our uplands are special but they are in trouble. 

The inaugural State of Nature Report launched by David Attenborough in 2016 found that of 877 upland species assessed, 65% have declined and 35% declined strongly. 

Many specially protected sites, especially those designated for montane heath, blanket bog and upland heath are in poor condition as a consequence of historic and current management especially drainage, burning, high density livestock grazing and the wrong trees planted in the wrong place.  This management, coupled with browsing by wild deer, has also constrained the distribution of native pinewood and Atlantic oak wood. 

This is not just about wildlife, but also carbon.

For example, over 80% of our peatlands are degraded releasing 23.3 million tonnes of CO2 which is equivalent to the emissions of all HGVs and c5% of total UK emissions.

In its advice to the UK Government about how to meet its net zero obligation, the Committee on Climate Change recognised the significance of peatlands and woodlands and set some very ambitious targets for example to ensure all upland peatlands are restored by 2045. 

In fact, research the RSPB has conducted with WWF has shown that UK landscapes (especially peatlands, woodlands and grasslands) lock up >16 billion tonnes of CO2e which is more than 130 years’ worth of current road transport emissions in the UK.  In addition, the UK has the potential to use natural spaces to absorb and/or lock up an additional 123 million tonnes by 2030 and more than three times that by 2050.  Nature based solutions could result in 6-7% UK emissions reductions by the end of this decade which would be good news for wildlife and good news for our climate.

So the way we manage our landscapes – especially our uplands – matters both for carbon and for wildlife. 

But we can make things better.  I say that with confidence because the RSPB and many other organisations have over the past four decades being working to fix our uplands. 

For example, the RSPB recently calculated that across the whole of the upland estate, we have restored 2,400 hectares a of broadleaved woodland and native pinewood, having felled about 2,700 ha of non-native conifers.  We’ve also re-wetted about 14,000 ha of upland peatland. 

This is good news for wildlife, for carbon storage, for water quality and for flood protection.  

So how did we do this and what gives us confidence that we can much more?

I want to give you a couple of examples and then draw out some lessons which to my mind are the conditions which need to be in place to allow us to be optimistic about the future.

Introduction to the RSPB

For those of you that do not know the RSPB, our charity is 132 years old, is Europe’s largest nature conservation NGO and is the UK Partner of BirdLife International.  We have over 1 million members and we own or manage c160,000 hectares of land through our 220 nature reserves which provides homes for >18,000 species across the UK.

We have over four decades of working with partners to restore our uplands in fantastic landscapes like the Garron Plateau in Northern Ireland, Forsinard in the Flow Country, Vyrnwy in West Wales and Haweswater in the Lake District. 

To illustrate what we do and how we do it I am going to do a deep dive in two landscapes – one in the Cairngorms and one in the North Pennines.  And the Pennines is where I will start because the black grouse and hen harrier stories I gave at the beginning was what I experienced when I visited a couple of years ago.

  1. Geltsdale

RSPB Geltsdale comprises 5,350 ha of upland habitat in the North Pennines.  Until the late 1990s it was fairly typical of upland England or Wales dominated by sheep while the its blanket bog had been damaged by drainage, burning and overgrazing.  Yet, over the past three decades the RSPB has been working to change the management to benefit the wildlife and the carbon-rich soils.

The big shifts have been to…

first reduce the overall density of grazing by 30% by decreasing number of sheep from 4,400 to 300 and increasing number of cattle from 20 to 240 (Show graph) and also increase in pony grazing to reduce bracken cover

…also blocking 150 km of grips/drains by using heather bales

…reducing and then stopping of heather burning to prevent damage to the peatland vegetation

…removal of trees in areas of peat while increase planting of native broadleaved trees and shrubs such as downy birch, silver birch, hazel, holly and hawthorn

…do some low level control of foxes and crows to reduce the pressure of generalist predators on vulnerable ground-nesting birds

The results have been impressive.  We have increased the area of blanket bog in favourable condition from 9% to 43% which compares favourably with all English blanket bogs which are stuck at c10%.

We have also dramatically increased the cover and species richness of peat-forming Sphagnum mosses.  In fact, in one area where the non-native lodgepole pine was felled to restore a bog, there has been sufficient growth of Sphagnum to allow it to be harvested and translocated to help restore areas of bare, eroded peat at another RSPB site called Dove Stone in the Peak District.  Species like dunlin and golden plover have bounced back at Dove Stone as a result of the restoration.

At Geltsdale, we have dramatically increased the black grouse population, restored lapwing to the site and helped stablilise the population of species such as curlew whose numbers have been plummeting across the rest of the UK

While many challenges remain, the results at Geltsdale show the benefits of restoring our uplands.

  1. Cairngorms Connect

My second example is in the Cairngorms.  Here the RSPB is part of a partnership of neighbouring land managers, committed to a bold and ambitious 200-year vision to enhance habitats, species and ecological processes across a vast area within the Cairngorms National Park. 

The Cairngorms Connect area stretches over 600 square kilometres – including the RSPB’s iconic Abernethy and Insh Marshes nature reserves.

It is very, very big. Ancient woodlands intersected by sparkling rivers and lochs, encircle an Arctic-like mountain massif – the most extensive and wildest of its kind in Britain; there are vast tracts of blanket bog, tranquil wetlands and secret woodland bogs. It is a place where eagles soar, wildcats prowl and red squirrels forage; home to plants, insects, birds and mammals found in few other places.

While the RSPB has been active in the Cairngorms since the 1970s and have achieved amazing things, the new partnership allows to scale up our ambition.  Our future focus will be on restoring watercourses and floodplains, enhancing native woodlands, restructuring Scots pine plantations, managing deer populations.

And, of course, we are restoring peatlands as shown in the video where helicopters have delivered stone to these diggers which aren’t really diggers because they are blocking the dams, slow the flow of water off the hill which allows the bog to recover, lock up carbon and provide habitat for a huge range of species.  The project you can see here will restore 92 hectares of peatland and is funded by Nature Scot’s Peatland Action fund.  Cairngorms Connect has also benefited from Endangered Landscape Programme funding from Arcadia about which you can hear more about at this conference.

It’s hard work, take time, but the benefits are huge.  We plan to restore a further 1000 hectares this decade.

So what have we learnt?

Here are five lessons I think which will help transform more landscapes for wildlife and for people across the UK in the future.

  1. Governments need to lead. Only government can set the ambition and legal framework to restore habitat at scaleThat's why we have been campaigning for legal targets to drive nature's recovery for example through the Environment Bill in England.
  2. Match ambition with funding.  Laws and political commitments are crucial in making the case for intervention but also in mobilising funding such as Scotland’s Peatland Action Fund or England’s £650m Nature and Climate Fund. 
  3. Think big, think long term. To achieve lasting impact for wildlife and for carbon, we know that we need more, bigger, better and joined landscapes.  It’s why the RSPB has focused on 37 landscapes to transform this decade – which you can see in blue on this map.  It’s also why we have been supportive of ambitions – expressed by both the Prime Minister and First Minister of Scotland - to ensure 30% of land and sea are well protected and managed for nature by 2030.  Yet just 5% of land in the UK is currently in good condition.  We therefore require a six-fold improvement this decade.
  4. Be in it for the longhaul. Projects of the scale of Cairngorm Connect don't happen overnight and it takes time to build the trusting relationships that have been developed between RSPB staff and different landowners.  
  5. Monitor, showcase and inspire. Because that is what Earth Optimism is all about. We know what it takes to improve the natural world.  We just need more land and sea to get the restoration treatment. 

But it’s worth it because this is a key way in which we will address the climate and ecological emergency. 

Thank you for listening.