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Saving special places

Saving nature’s home is a big part of our work. Read the stories from the people on the front line of saving the best places that wildlife need to survive.
  • Challenges in communicating science - a case study at sea.

    In science communications, as papers are published and projects reach their conclusion, we finally have the chance to shout about what we have done and why the world is different today. But, we also realise that sometimes good science is only of interest to those working in a specialised field. This can mean there is a temptation to try to sensationalise a story to make it more attention grabbing to everyone. Medical science is a perfect example where the wider public has a huge appetite for the announcement of cures rather than the myriad of vital breakthroughs that bring us ever closer to those cures. The publication of the Offshore Renewables Joint Industry Programme (ORJIP) Bird Collision Avoidance project is a timely reminder of how an attention grabbing headline can detract from good science as the media fixate on the dissonance between media release and published papers rather than what the story actually is.

    The RSPB is supportive of well-sited renewable energy including offshore wind, which offers a vast opportunity to help the UK and other nations to achieve a de-carbonised energy sector and meet our climate emissions reduction targets. However UK and wider North Sea waters also support globally important seabird populations and other marine wildlife that are at risk from large scale deployment of offshore wind. We are focused on addressing these risks to ensure our ambitions for offshore wind deployment can be realized in harmony with nature, not in spite of it. It is for these reasons that we have been calling, for many years, for collaborative, evidence-based studies on seabird behaviour in and around windfarms to improve our understanding of the risks posed to these species. The Offshore Renewables Joint Industry Programme (ORJIP) Bird Collision Avoidance project is one such study, which we have been supportive of and in which we have been involved as a member of the Expert Panel. The valuable results of this impressive, ground-breaking study have just been published, but unfortunately the statement that accompanied the report misinterpreted its conclusions, and so press reporting of this work has been inaccurate.

    The focus of the Bird Collision Avoidance project was to shed light on the potential impact of seabirds colliding with rotating turbine blades. Other impacts caused by offshore wind farms such as direct habitat loss, indirect habitat loss through barrier effects and displacement effects were outwith the scope of the study. Considerable uncertainty exists around each of these impact mechanisms and the extent to which they affect seabirds, none more so than the impact of collision mortality, so we welcomed this opportunity to collect new empirical data on this specific issue.

    The study used a number of largely novel technologies to record bird behaviour at and around a small number of turbines at the edge of Thanet wind farm, located 12km off the coast of Margate, Kent, in the UK. Data were collected between July 2014 to April 2016 and the final project report was published on Thursday 19th April 2018. Whilst, as the report acknowledges, there were considerable limitations to the collected data, it did use a novel approach to shed new light on seabird avoidance behaviours in and around offshore wind turbines. However the project also made clear it would be wrong to extrapolate the results across the whole wind farm and therefore could not generate whole wind farm mortalities

    This new dataset on seabird behaviour is an important step forward in minimizing the uncertainty around estimation of collision mortality impacts. However, a lot more work is needed before we can fully incorporate this into the assessment of collision risks of offshore wind projects. Such work is a recommendation of the project and is the focus of a new piece of work commissioned by a Government advisory body, the Joint Nature Conservation Committee. To understand the reasons why more research is needed requires a detailed look at how we currently assess collision mortality impacts. During the current environmental assessment process of offshore wind projects, the number of birds predicted to be killed through collision is estimated by Collision Risk Modelling. This modelling technique takes a number of input parameters, related to the turbines (e.g. blade size) and related to the birds (e.g. numbers present and flight height), and estimates the number of collisions that will occur. A key part of the model process is the application of a correction factor known as Avoidance Rate.

    Avoidance Rate accounts for the discrepancy between predicted collision mortality and actual collision mortality. Such discrepancy arises because of natural variability and uncertainty in the input parameters, such as flight height and bird density, errors in the modelling process, errors in the model itself as well as any avoidance behaviour of the birds in response to the turbines. As such, “Avoidance Rate” is a misnomer; it is not exclusively related to avoidance behaviour per se. A number of studies have shown that Avoidance Rate has a disproportionate influence on the number of mortalities predicted by Collision Risk Modelling and there has been considerable debate around what its actual value should be (it is largely estimated) and how it could be better measured and refined. Improving understanding of the true value of the correction factor termed “Avoidance Rate” would allow us to predict collision mortality with greater confidence in the accuracy of models.

    In contrast, the Bird Collision Avoidance project calculated what it called Empirical Avoidance Rates in order to distinguish these from the traditional Avoidance Rates as used in Collision Risk Modelling and described above. The project attempted to account for some sources of the variability and uncertainty that influence Avoidance Rates but was unable to quantify all of these. Attempting to compare the Empirical Avoidance Rates generated by this study with the correction factor know as Avoidance Rate that is used in collision risk modelling is akin to comparing apples with oranges.

    The RSPB fully acknowledge this issue as being hugely nuanced and complex, however it is unfortunate that the press release that accompanied the publication of this study overstated and over simplified the applicability of the results. As a consequence the statement included figures on reductions in the risk of collision mortality posed by offshore turbines, figures which did not form part of the study nor are they found in the report itself and so had not been sighted by or agreed with the Expert Panel. The resulting press release has therefore drawn conclusions from the study that are simply wrong. This episode is tremendously frustrating as the very real gains of the project - an unprecedented amount of data on the behaviour of seabirds in and around an offshore wind farm, have now been overshadowed due to a misrepresentation of the project’s conclusions. We are committed to continuing to work with partners to use the data gained with a view to establishing more understanding of the behaviours of sea birds around offshore wind turbines. It remains criticially important to help the growing offshore industry minimize its impact on our globally important populations of seabirds whilst at the same time meeting our energy needs with clean renewable technologies.

  • The Great Wash has been designated for its importance for wildlife - good news? Yes, but there's a twist.

    It’s almost invariably good news when a special site for wildlife gets legal recognition and is designated.

    But the Greater Wash Special Protection Area (SPA) – which was classified as an SPA by DEFRA ministers on 28 March begs some questions. The site is important for red-throated divers, common scoters and little gulls in winter and feeding terns.

    The Saving Special Places blog asked our Head of Site Conservation Policy, Kate Jennings, to delve beneath the surface.

    SSP blog – Surely designating a new – and large SPA is a red letter day worth celebrating?

    Kate – Yes it is, and the Greater Wash SPA is a very large site (you can see the map here) - and it's vital to internationally important bird populations. But in this case there are worrying differences between the proposed site and the one finally agreed after a consultation – basically it now has a hole in the middle!

     SSP blog – So what has happened to change the site’s boundaries during the consultation?

    Kate – Good question! During the consultation there were a number of objections from the offshore wind industry (there are a number of windfarms inside the site) questioning the evidence used to come up with the proposed site and support designation.  The main issues focused on the age of the data (2002/3 – 2007-8) so 10 years old for some species (reflecting just how long the UK Government has taken to progress designation here) and the existence of more recent survey data collected from the air after the construction of the windfarms which shows that bird distributions have changed and densities have fallen within the windfarm areas. Crucially, the available data from surveys before the windfarms were built show that these were amongst the most important parts of this site for these birds, according to the evidence that underpinned the designation proposals.   

    This more recent data was not taken into account in the case for designation.  Natural England (NE) have access to this more recent data as that’s a condition of construction – but, crucially, it is not in the public domain. Industry argued that on this basis the windfarm areas should be excluded from the site boundaries.

    SSP blog – but isn’t it reasonable to use the latest information?

    Kate - Decisions about the boundaries of SPAs must – by law – be based only on scientific considerations which is vital to ensure that protection is given to the best areas for wildlife and not just the bits that nobody else cares about – anything less would constitute significant weakening of legal protection. It is normal practice is to limit the evidence used to backup site designation to that which is in the public domain (or which is made public as part of the consultation),as it is right that consultees are able to scrutinise that data.  

    So, an informal consultation prior to the formal stage asks stakeholders to get in touch to share any information relevant to the proposals.  This is intended to flush out any such information at this stage. This happened in this case. This puts NE and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC), as advisers to DEFRA in a strong position when objectors later wheel out evidence they have not been prepared to share.

    SSP blog – So, to be clear, it appears the boundaries of the SPA have modified on the basis of data provided that is not publicly available?

    Kate – Yes, as we understand it at a meeting between the responsible minister, DEFRA officials, NE and industry representatives a decision was taken to exclude the windfarms in the middle of the SPA. As the data is not publically available that, currently, is all we know.

    SSP blog – To be clear, it would appear that three windfarms are now, in effect surrounded by the SPA – how will the seabirds know to avoid the hole in the middle?

    Kate – They won't! The protection an SPA gives follows the features (in other words the birds themselves) rather than the boundaries. So, at one level, it could be argued that the fact there is a hole in our SPA will make little or no practical difference to the regulation of activities within the windfarms (provided the law is applied correctly).

    SSP blog – if the SPA can be effective – what are our fundamental concerns?

    Kate – We have a site where the boundary has been changed by a Minister based on evidence not in the public domain, seemingly based on NE and JNCC advice that contradicts the original written advice that they and JNCC gave to Government. Without sight of the evidence the risk is always that economic pressures have swayed what should be a purely scientific consideration. 

    Clearly there is a growing issue with the age of some data – pointing to the very real need for new and detailed offshore surveys ahead of new offshore leasing rounds.

    In addition, if the data provided by the industry genuinely highlights the impact of the windfarms in the hole in the SPA – that is critical evidence that must be published so that we can all learn from the post-construction monitoring that so far has been kept confidential.

    SPP blog – so what happens next?

    Kate – We believe DEFRA, NE, JNCC and the offshore wind industry have serious questions to answer, not least in order to build trust and confidence that decisions around the rapidly expanding plans for offshore wind in the North Sea fully respect its importance for seabirds and marine wildlife.

    We’ll return to this knotty issue when we have greater clarity

  • Want to know about peat bogs? Here's a primer

    Wherever peat soils form - there is a conservation story - often of loss and damage, occasionally of restoration and hope. They form a fragile home for distinctive and often threatened wildlife and the properties of the peat provide life-giving benefits for us - Chris Collett, our Communications Manager for North England introduces peat bogs ahead of a significant launch.

    Today (19 April) sees IUCN UK Peatland Programme launch its UK Peatland Strategy, which sets out how it plans to work with partners to achieve its ambitious target of restoring two million hectares of damaged bogs by 2040. 

    But just what are our peatlands, why are so much of them damaged and why should we even care about these under-loved and too often overlooked habitats?

    Peat is made up of long-dead poorly decomposed plantlife, which in certain wet conditions, accumulates to form a bog. There are two main types of peat bog. Raised bogs are found in lowland areas and normally occur in poorly drained natural basins. Over a period of thousands of years, sphagnum moss and other bog vegetation develop at about 1mm a year into large domes that when, undamaged, rise above the surrounding land.

    Large heath butterflies depend on peat bogs. Photo credit Tim Melling

    Blanket bogs, meanwhile are characteristic of our upland areas and here the waterlogged conditions are created by very high rainfall.  Unlike the lowland basin bogs, blanket bogs form a carpet of wet sphagnum on high altitude plateaus. Like their lowland counterparts, they take millennia to develop.

    Blanket bogs cover our hills and are home to wildlife as well supplying drinking water and locking up carbon. Photo credit Tim Melling

    Sadly, both of these habitats are in bad shape in the UK. We’ve lost more than 90% of lowland raised bog in the UK thanks largely to large-scale peat extraction for the horticultural industry. This process involves stripping and draining the entire bog so the peat can be removed and sold to gardeners.

    Blanket bogs are in similarly bad heart but for different reasons. In some areas, atmospheric pollution from the industrial revolution has stripped the surface vegetation from the bog, revealing bare peat, which then dried out. In other places, the planting of forests on blanket bogs has destroyed the habitat for the special plants and wildlife that inhabit them. The practice of burning heather on areas of deep peat, which is employed by shooting estates to improve conditions for red grouse, has also caused serious damage to blanket bog.    

    Like many other nature conservation organisations, we are working hard to restore these damaged habitats as they provide important benefits for both people and wildlife. Our bogs are home to a host of specialist plants such as sphagnum mosses, bog rosemary, butterworts and insect-eating sundews. They also attract butterflies like the large heath and dragonflies including the black darter.

    Wading birds such as golden plovers and dunlins like to breed on upland bogs where there are lots of insects for them to eat. Since we’ve been restoring the blanket bog at Dove Stone in the Peak District, we seen a significant rise in both of these species.

    Golden plover at home amongst the cotton grass. Photo credit Tim Melling.

    Both raised and blanket bogs act as huge carbon stores. Our blanket bogs alone store an estimated 2,000 Mt.  Unless we look after these bogs, harmful carbon dioxide will escape into the atmosphere adding to the risk of damaging climate change.  

    Blanket bogs also play a key role improving raw water quality for domestic use. Seven out of every ten litres of water that comes out of our taps originates in the uplands, with rain water moving down from the hills into rivers and reservoirs at the bottom of the valleys. When in good condition, our blanket bogs can act as natural filtration systems that improve the quality of the water, which means less treatment is required by the water company and therefore lower bills for the customer. 

    Healthy blanket bogs can slow down and disrupt the flow of water coming from the hills, which can reduce the risk of flooding on lower-lying land. With climate change causing more extreme weather events these natural flood defences are becoming increasingly important.

    As you can see, our bogs are vital habitats and provide a lot more benefits than it might first appear.

    In our next blog, we’ll be giving the low down on what we are doing to restore blanket bogs on our upland reserves.