March, 2016

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.

Saving Species

The need for species conservation has never been greater. Despite notable successes in improving the fortunes of a number of bird species, more are being forced onto the list of those that need attention, both globally and in the UK. If we want to have a
  • Last chance to take the lead

    Lead is toxic.

    That might qualify as one of the more obvious ways to start a blog post. We’ve known for decades that lead is toxic – it’s why society has gone to such great lengths to get rid of it from petrol, paint and pipes.

    Yet bizarrely, it’s still legal to use lead ammunition in many circumstances here in the UK, despite non-toxic alternatives being available. Even where lead ammunition is banned (over wetlands and for shooting most wetland species – with slight differences across the UK) research has shown compliance is poor.

    Whooper swan poisoned by lead. Photo by WWT.

    Photo by WWT.

    In England, a study found 70% non-compliance with the law. Its estimated that about 100,000 birds are poisoned annually by lead – a huge and avoidable cause of death for some of our best loved birds, such as pochard.

    And the problem can extend to terrestrial areas as well. While not currently illegal, gamebirds, ducks and geese can mistake bits of lead shot for grit and ingest it, in dry as well as wet areas. And scavengers such as birds of prey can be at risk if they eat game shot with lead ammunition and not retrieved.

    Change is possible. The RSPB has moved away from lead ammunition use on our reserves. We’re in the last stages of completing a switch away from use of any lead on our sites.

    And we have legal obligations too. The UK has signed up to a resolution under the Convention on Migratory Species, which calls for an end to lead ammunition use within three years.

    With all of this weight of evidence, its quite hard to understand why the UK hasn’t followed countries like Denmark and banned the use of all lead ammunition already. Well the good news that an e-petition has been set up to show the Government that people want to see an end to these deaths and an end to lead ammunition use.

    The petition closes on 4 May, so there is not long left! The RSPB fully supports this cause and encourages everyone to sign. Please add your name.

    Together we can send a strong message that the time has finally come to take the lead on lead.

  • More fieldwork in Senegal and finding Madge!

    (splendid collaboration with the RSPB Turtle Dove team in Senegal) 
    By Ben Koks & Almut Schlaich, Dutch Montagu’s Harrier Foundation


    We are now sure that Senegal is an important country for wintering British Montagu’s harriers. Even before any modern day satellite-tagging, a metal ring of a Montagu’s harrier, ringed in Norfolk as a juvenile and found in Senegal hinted at this.

    After only two years of satellite tracking in collaboration with RSPB and The Sound Approach, we already have a much more detailed picture. Three out of four UK tagged adults that reached Africa have wintering sites in Senegal: Mark, Madge and Roger. Up to now, Rowan (an adult female) is the only tagged British bird wintering in Mali.

    Male and female Montagu's harriers in the UK (Graham Catley)

    In general, ‘our’ tagged birds from subpopulations in the Netherlands, Germany, Poland, Belarus, Denmark and the UK winter in the whole Sahel zone from Chad in the East, in Niger, Nigeria, Ghana, Burkina Faso, Mali, to Senegal in the West.

    From 2006 onwards, we visited the most important regions in this part of Africa but mainly due to safety reasons we focused our fieldwork in Senegal during the last years. Our normal fieldwork consists of counting raptors, trying to find roosts of Montagu’s harriers and count the birds there (noting age and sex if possible), trying to read colorings and wingtags, and collecting harrier pellets.

    But the most important task is counting grasshoppers, the main prey of wintering Montagu’s harriers, along transects. All this implies that we mostly camp close to the birds so we can combine the different operations during our trips. It’s always glorious to see the harriers arriving at their roost, observe their main predators, and listen to the sounds of nightjars, hyenas, jackals, and owls. By night, listening to the silence of the savannah watching the starry sky is by far a greater experience then sleeping in hotels (even without beer what we sometimes miss).

    Mortality is one of the big issues we are interested in. To determine the critical moments in the annual cycle of Montagu’s harriers is the major reason to continue satellite tracking. Together with the University of Lund and the Institute of Avian Research “Vogelwarte Helgoland” we already found some general patterns of mortality based on tracking data of Osprey’s, Marsh Harriers, and Montagu’s Harriers. When one of our birds dies it often feels sad.

    In all the cases, we remember the circumstances we trapped the bird in, the farmer and the protection people involved, the breeding success of the pair, and sometimes we even know the place of birth and other life history events of such an individual. Sad, true, but we’ll all die, that’s the way of life. In our study, we are actually collecting anecdotes. Rob G. Bijlsma – one of the keenest ornithologists in the Netherlands -always repeated that the value of good anecdotes is underestimated in science based nature conservation in general. We strongly believe that all those small stories are together the base of a great story which will advance conservation further then only scientific reports.

    So here comes the story of Madge. Madge was fitted with a transmitter in SW England in the breeding season of 2014. Together with her mate Mark she raised four good-looking juveniles in a barley field. After a smooth and quick journey Madge reached her first wintering site in Senegal in September 2014.

    This area, named Khelcom, is the most important known wintering area of Montagu’s harriers and used by more than 4000 birds! On 3 November, Madge moved on to her second wintering site not far away from the border with the Gambia near the village of Diokoul. A nice village with nice people. But after a while the signals of the transmitter indicated that Madge was not moving anymore, she had died in that area.

    As we reported before, during our trip in January/February 2015 we tried to find the transmitter and the remains of Madge on a laterite plateau were we promptly found a small roost with around 25 Montagu’s Harriers. The transmitter was still sending positions to the ARGOS-satellites but since those are not very accurate, our search was in vain. We had to give up the hope of ever finding it again.

    But you should never give up hope! Luckily the RSPB Turtle Dove research team working in Senegal and the Gambia had a satellite receiver that we could use to find the transmitter of Madge! On the 5th of February we met Chris Orsman and Mark Whiffin from the RSPB together with their Senegalese colleagues at the northern border between Senegal and the Gambia.

    After saying goodbye to Chris, Mark, Malang, and Moussa we had to travel only 50 km from Medina Sabakh to the laterite plateau nearby Diokoul.

    Fifty memorable kilometers, driving on sand tracks and through villages as fast as possible. Nearly three hours later, we reached the place were Madge’s ghost was waiting for us only around 21:15h in complete darkness.

    After stopping our car we switched on the receiver and directly got the first signal from Madge’s transmitter! Incredible! However, since it was already towards the end of the transmission cycle, the signals were weak and even though we stumbled in the dark until the last signal faded at 23:05h we didn’t find it. Tired and worried that the signal might not start again the next day due to low battery we set up our camp and listened to the calls of Savile’s Bustards.

    The next day, we had to wait for the next transmission cycle of transmitter and were really anxious that the device would skip duty cycles after having been laying in the middle of nowhere for more than 14 months.

    In the meanwhile, we used the morning to count our grasshopper transects and look around to find a possible roost. At the end of the morning it started to get hot and became quite unpleasant during the afternoon. Still we had to wait for the first signal that should be transmitted around 15:30h. Turning on the receiver at 15:00h, just in case, time was passing slowly. 15:30h, 16:00h, 16:30h, still no signal. The thought of giving up came up in our minds.

    Even the tree that spent shadow during the morning was not useable as umbrella. But then, suddenly, almost two hours after the expected start of the duty cycle the tag started to transmit. We immediately started to walk in the direction of the signal and soon the signals got stronger and stronger indicating that we were coming closer. After a short while, we had the feeling that we should be on the spot and felt that we were very close to an exciting moment.

    Ben started searching on his knees, looking carefully leaf for leaf under the shrub (diameter proximally five meters, height three meters) and soon saw a piece of equipment made in the USA and an antenna hidden under the leafs!! Thanks to the RSPB, a bit of luck and some patience, we found our first satellite transmitter back in Africa.

    Ben having just found the tag belonging to Madge, which had being laying in Africa for 14 months.

    The device seemed still to be in a good shape, but the remaining pieces of the teflon-harness looked as if bitten off by a predator. The place where we found the transmitter, together with the knowledge that there are not so many avian predators that are skilled enough to catch an experienced adult harrier like Madge could lead us to the conclusion that she might have been predated by a Verreaux’s Eagle Owl.

    During our trips in 2015 and 2016 we met a lot a friendly people near Madge’s plateau. It was funny to realize that all the people in Diokoul, which is quite a big village with about 5,000 inhabitants, seemed to know that we were again there to search for a little device of a bird.

    We already left some pictures of Montagu’s harriers and transmitter the year before. But people were of course much more impressed to see the real transmitter! For sure, everybody in this part of Senegal now knows of the legend of Madge. On our way back to Dakar we met up with the turtle dove team to give back the receiver, tell the great story, and thank them once again for their great help. 

    Almut showing the local village the tag, these birds connect people on two very different continents

    From a less romantic point of view, we are very delighted to add another anecdote to our immense amount of anecdotes that we have been collecting since 1990!

    Almut and Ben

  • Cattle metabolise aceclofenac into vulture-killing diclofenac

    Guest blog by Dr. Toby Galligan Conservation Scientist at the RSPB Centre for Conservation Science

    Diclofenac responsible for decline in vulture populations
    Veterinary use of the non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) diclofenac in cattle was the principal cause of the virtual disappearance of formerly abundant Gyps vultures from most parts of the Indian subcontinent. Vultures die from kidney failure when they feed on the carcass of an animal given the drug shortly before its death. The population of one species, the Oriental white-backed vulture, has declined to one-thousandth of what it was before diclofenac came into widespread use in the 1990s.

    Photo of Oriental white-backed vultures that declined by 99.9% in India as a result of widespread diclofenac use in cattle (V. Prakash)

    Aceclofenac a pro-drug of diclofenac
    Veterinary use of diclofenac was banned in India, Nepal and Pakistan in 2006 (and Bangladesh in 2010) to protect vultures, but several other NSAIDs of unknown toxicity to vultures are now sold legally in its place. Today, in an article accepted for publication in Conservation Biology, SAVE (Savings Asia’s Vultures from Extinction) partners show that cattle quickly metabolise one of these drugs, aceclofenac, into vulture-killing diclofenac.

    The RSPB Centre for Conservation Science, in collaboration with the Department of Paraclinical Sciences (University of Pretoria, South Africa), the Environmental Research Institute (University of the Highlands and Islands, UK) and others, gave four cattle the recommended veterinary dose of aceclofenac, sampled their blood at intervals and analysed the samples to measure concentrations of aceclofenac and diclofenac. The results were clear: the cattle rapidly metabolised almost 100% of the aceclofenac into diclofenac.

    Availability of aceclofenac increasing
    The consequences of this finding are serious. First, a cow treated with aceclofenac poses the same threat to Gyps vultures as one treated with diclofenac. Second, aceclofenac is widely and legally available for treating livestock in South Asia - it is recommended for the same uses as diclofenac, including palliative care of dying cattle, which leads to the contamination of carcasses that vultures feed on. Third, according to repeated surveys of drugs offered for sale for veterinary use in pharmacies, the availability of aceclofenac is increasing.

    Photo of a typical South Asian pharmacy where aceclofenac is legally sold for veterinary use (S. Chaudhari)

    Fortunately, aceclofenac is not yet as popular as diclofenac once was. However, the Government of India’s ban on veterinary diclofenac in 2006, which reduced its use by more than half, and an amendment to that ban in 2015, which is hoped to reduce diclofenac use even further, may result in increases in aceclofenac use, particularly if pharmaceutical companies promote it as a legal and harmless substitute for diclofenac.

    At present, vulture populations have stopped declining after the decrease in illegal diclofenac use, but these magnificent birds may now be pushed over the brink by an increase in legal aceclofenac use.

    Aceclofenac must be banned
    Four years ago, in the “Delhi Declaration” (Regional Declaration on the Conservation of South Asia’s Critically Endangered Vulture Species: 4 May 2012), the governments of Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Nepal agreed to prevent veterinary use of aceclofenac to protect vultures. However, nothing was done to implement this commitment because, whilst aceclofenac was known to be metabolised to diclofenac in several mammal species, this had not been demonstrated in cattle. Our study now confirms that it does.

    The governments of South Asia took strong and swift action against diclofenac to save their vultures. Now, it is time for them to take equally strong and swift action against aceclofenac. The responsible governments should immediately ban all aceclofenac formulations that can be used for treating cattle. Such a ban needs to be comprehensive, covering the manufacture, importation, retail and use of all but single dose vials for human health care.

    The alternative relaxed approach – as we have seen in the European Union with the recent approval of veterinary diclofenac that now threatens Europe’s vultures – could be the final straw for the endemic vulture species of South Asia.

    Photo of Eurasian griffon vultures, which like South Asian vultures, are endangered because of a lack of pharmaceutical safety testing on wildlife (C. Carboneras)

    The ultimate problem is that nowhere in the world are pharmaceutical drugs, whether for human or animal use, safety tested on the wildlife that are exposed to them before approval.

    We have known for over a decade that some drugs are toxic to vultures and that vultures are exposed to these drugs through the consumption of contaminated carcasses; but still there is no mandatory safety testing for such drugs before approval, nor a clear legislative mechanism to ban drugs found to be toxic. This is true for South Asian nations as well as the EU.