November, 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
  • The twite aren’t alright

    The twite - Carduelis flavirostris - with its yellow bill and powder pink rump is a favourite of mine so I was concerned to read this blog from Helen Byron our Area Conservation manager for Yorkshire, Humberside and the Peak District.

    Twite are never going to score highly in the avian glamour stakes but thanks to street artist Matt Sewell  this under-loved little brown job has now been immortalised with a mural in Sheffield as part of the FeatureWallsSHF festival. It’s great that the profile of this under-loved bird has been given boost, particularly because it’s really struggling in conservation terms.  

    Mat Sewell's mural - the twite of fashion in Sheffield.

    Twite are a hardy, reclusive species living in bleak and often remote moorland areas. They are easiest to see on the North West coast of Scotland where they are still relatively abundant, but here in England, twite are in trouble.  South of the border, they are mainly found in the South Pennines and even there, they are struggling.   

    A few years ago, we at the RSPB and Natural England were so concerned about twite that we set up a recovery project in the South Pennines, sowing and restoring wildflower meadows so that they would have something to eat whenever they needed it.

    With the considerable help of around 70 farmers and landowners in the South Pennines, 360 hectares (around 500 football pitches) of hay meadows have been restored since 2010. Thanks to these efforts twite now have a food source throughout their breeding season.  Furthermore, they have ample nesting habitat on the moors and plenty of water to drink.

    With all these basic needs being met, the prospects for twite of the South Pennines should be improving. But sadly, they aren’t. In spite of all this excellent work, this year the numbers of twite recorded have declined in many of the colonies in the South Pennines.

    But it’s not all bad news for twite as this year, there have been more recorded in Derbyshire.

    We need to understand the reasons twite are not responding positively to conservation action in the South Pennines. Photo credit Tom Marshall

    Furthermore, the newly restored hay meadows have proved very popular with bees and butterflies.  Many of the landowners have told us they are delighted that they can now hear bees go about their business.

    We will be comparing this year’s survey results with those obtained on the same ground in 2010 and 2013.  We will then have a clearer idea of what is happening to the South Pennines twite population and where we should be concentrating our efforts in the future.  Rest assured we are committed to looking after this under-loved species.  

    The Twite Recovery Project – is a joint RSPB and Natural England Action for Birds in England (AfBiE) project supported with funding from Marshalls and Additional support for the Twite network, a group dedicated to the continued monitoring of Twite in the U.K. & Northern Ireland, from Kowa Optics. 

  • Curlews in Crisis - the search for solutions in Ireland

    Curlews in Crisis Workshop – New Forest Golf Estate, Tyrellspass, County Westmeath, Ireland.  November 4th 2016

    A guest blog by Mary Colwell who is at the forefront of campaigning and raising awareness of curlews across the Britain and Ireland. Mary initiated the Curlew in Crises workshop in Ireland, with organisational assistance from University College Dublin  and BirdWatch Ireland and funding from the National Parks and Wildlife Service and the Heritage Council. Forest and Environmental Research Services (FERS Ltd.) were also party to the survey effort as contractors.

    Surveys carried out over the last two years across the Republic of Ireland show that there are only around 130 pairs of breeding curlew left.  In the 1980s there were 5000. That is a shocking decline for a once common and widespread bird.  This iconic bird of bog, moorland and rough pasture is about to slip away from the Emerald Isle.  In response to this imminent extinction a Curlews in Crisis workshop was held in County Westmeath, on November 4th and generously hosted by the New Forest Golf Estate (

    100 people representing farming, government, forestry, non-governmental organisations, energy production, academia and bird watchers gathered for a day of presentations on the status of the Curlew around Ireland and to take part in workshops to devise solutions.

    The morning was devoted to the presentations and all were fascinating and salutatory. The morning session was chaired by Michael Martyn, an independent ecologist. (

    Barry O’Donaghue from the National parks and Wildlife Service (, who commissioned the surveys, showed where the remaining birds are located.  The surveys were carried out over two years and the dots represent where nests were found; the 2015 results are shown in yellow and 2016 in red.  These surveys highlighted that the bogs of central Ireland, unimproved meadows and rough, wet pasture are the remaining strongholds of curlews.  An area of seasonally flooded meadows along the Shannon, called the Shannon Callows, was not included and is thought to contain around 5 pairs. This area will be surveyed in 2017.  Both surveys were carried out by BirdWatch surveyors and volunteers.


    Figure 1 - Location of curlew nests

    It was found that 79% of the birds were nesting on peatlands and bogs and 29% on rushy pasture and wet grassland.

    Anita Donaghy from BirdWatch Ireland ( identified the main threats as peat cutting, improvement and drainage of rough wet areas into pasture, predation, specifically by foxes and hooded crows, and the spread of forestry. 

    It was important to get a picture of all of Ireland, both North and South,  therefore the RSPB were invited to present the status of curlews in Northern Ireland.  Neal Warnock form Country Antrim set the overall picture, showing that it is estimated there are between 250 and 560 pairs left, mainly in Antrim and Fermanagh, and is thought to be closer to the 250 mark.  A survey in 1987 showed 5000 pairs, making a dramatic 82% decline. 

    Neal manages the RSPB Curlew Trial Management Project area, Glenwherry in County Antrim, one of the six upland sites identified for research by the RSPB across the UK.  (

    Figure 2- location of GlenwherryGlenwherry is a region of rough pasture and bog and has around 46 pairs of curlews, which has remained more or less steady (with some ups and downs) for around the last 10 years.  In farms that were receiving targeted advice and help between 2011 and 2014 (the HELP project) numbers increased from 24 to 29 pairs and hatching rates also increased.


    Figure 3 – Glenwherry habitat

    Neal highlighted the areas of concern in Northern Ireland as:

    • Agri-environment scheme fall-off and delay in new schemes opening (in 2011 there were 12,000 farmers on schemes, in 2016, less than 1000)
    • Curlew breeding success is uniformly low
    • Planning applications on good habitat – specifically wind energy, forestry
    • Lack of designation for waders to protect breeding sites
    • Farm intensification, farm abandonment and diversification
    • Rush cover which is too dense for nesting
    • Policy e.g. Potential removal of Area of Natural Constraints (ANC) payments to hill farmers

    The other important area for curlew in Northern Ireland is the Lakeland area of County Fermanagh and Brad Robson presented the picture for the birds on the islands in the middle of Lough Erne.


    Figure 4 - typical island in lough Erne

    Removal of scrub, opening the landscape and protecting against predation (with electric fencing) have all helped curlew breeding.  There are around 40 pairs in the area but overall the trend is still downwards.  Brad stressed we need to know much more about the requirements of the birds in the breeding season, especially what happens  to the chicks between hatching and fledging.  He thinks that seemingly minor changes in the environment can have major effects.  Often the birds are disappearing due to small, incremental changes at the field level such as a small amount of drainage, building of houses, planting of shelter belts and so on.  He said that curlew were declining due to “death by a thousand cuts” as well as from large scale changes to the landscape.

    Two presentations from BirdWatch Ireland surveyors showed how damaging drainage and peat extraction were to breeding birds, especially where there are only a handful of birds left.  Both Michael Bell, from County Sligo and Paddy Sheridan from County Kildare painted a bleak picture.  Birds that once nested on wet, boggy ground had disappeared when large drains were dug through their territories, and in some areas illegal turf cutting on protected bogs had destroyed nests and chicks. Over two years, no pairs bred successfully in Kildare and there were probably no more than two nests in the whole of County Sligo.  Historical references from books and surveys referred to Curlew as being numerous and plentiful and so their observations painted a depressing scenario. Predation by foxes and crows and burning of bog was also highlighted as a threat to the birds, but despite illegal damage to protected areas, no prosecutions have been brought.


    Figure 5 - County Kildare curlew survey

    Mark Craven – a Predator Control Officer for the National Parks and Wildlife Service, discussed the problem of having to operate alone over a large area for a limited time with high numbers of mink, fox, hooded crow and magpie.  Although there is a general acceptance of the need for predator control in Ireland, Mark felt an awareness campaign would be very welcome to engage local gun clubs and farmers to help with controlling predators on curlew areas in particular, and more funding needs to be found to support them.  The efficacy of predator fencing versus lethal methods was discussed.

    David Buckley from the government’s Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine gave an overview of the new GLAS (Green Low-Carbon, Agri-Environment Scheme). Having curlew on their land enables farmers to enter the scheme and receive financial help and guidance. 280 have joined so far and there are places for 716.

    David Fallon from the commercial peat extraction company Bord na Mona gave a presentation on their bog restoration projects which they hope will attract waders.


    Figure 6 - Peat Restoration areas

    Bord na Mona provides peat for Ireland’s three peat powered power stations, but the company plans on phasing out using peat as a fuel in 10 years, replacing it with bio-fuels.

    A presentation from Rachel Taylor from the BTO ( on her joint work with the RSPB in N Wales provided interesting background and highlighted areas that need more research.  Rachel and Steve Todd (RSPB) have tagged 3 male curlew in the Migneint area of N Wales near Mount Snowdon. The birds are nesting on rough pasture and the results show how much they move around in the breeding season, often targeting the same areas to feed.  Close grazed sheep pasture is very important as a feeding area. One bird flew 3 km away to roost overnight by a small pool.  These results have yet to be fully analysed and many more birds need to be tagged to increase the data set, but intriguing questions have been raised. Do males and females use the breeding landscape in the same way?  Why are they selecting certain places to feed?  How do farmers’ activities affect feeding during the breeding season? 

    The second part of the day consisted of workshops and was chaired by Alan Lauder, an independent ecologist.  People were invited to attend two out of three choices.  Maurice Eakin from the NPWS held the workshop on curlews on bogs, Alex Copeland from BirdWatch Ireland ran the curlews and farming sessions and Simon Lester, an experienced gamekeeper from England, ran the workshop on predator control.  The findings were then presented to the whole group in a plenary session.  The conclusions of the conference are being summarised by two academics, Barry McMahon from University College Dublin and Juliette Young from the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology in Edinburgh, and will be circulated shortly.

    One major step forward that emerged from the day in New Forest was the setting up of a Curlew Task Force to push for curlew conservation measures to be enacted before the next breeding season.  Numbers of curlew are so low Ireland cannot afford to lose more birds by not protecting chicks next spring.  The actions of the Task Force will be published soon, but hopes are high for fast and effective measures to be put into place before March.

  • Northern bald ibis foraging in mint plantations have higher breeding success

    Guest blog by Dr Steffen Oppel, RSPB Senior Conservation Scientist, RSPB Centre for Conservation Science

    New research has revealed that semi-wild northern bald ibises in Turkey that forage in certain habitats are able to raise more fledglings. RSPB and the Turkish BirdLife partner Doğa Derneği have been working together to find out how this critically endangered bird’s habitat choices affect its breeding success.

    Species decline

    The northern bald ibis has a very distinctive appearance with its bare red head and black spiky ruff. It used to have a much wider range around the Mediterranean and the European Alps, but has declined almost to extinction over the centuries for various reasons including land-use changes, DDT poisoning and hunting. Only two remnant populations have survived in the wild, one in Morocco, and one in southern Turkey where the birds are captive for half the year.

    Reintroduction needs habitat knowledge

    In the last 15 years conservationists have made great progress to re-establish northern bald ibis populations in their former range with reintroduction projects in both Austria and in Spain. For species that disappeared before scientific data recording began, it is often difficult to know what type of environment they inhabited. A re-introduction will only work if the species is introduced in an area where it can actually find food and safe nesting areas. For the northern bald ibis, very little is known about the habitat the species needs. At a recent workshop of the International Advisory Group for Northern Bald Ibis in Austria, one important conclusion was that a better understanding of the habitat requirements is a top research priority for the species.

    Photo of northern bald ibises foraging in manure in southern Turkey. Photo by Can Yeniyurt

    Conservation in Turkey

    In Turkey, the remnant population has been safeguarded by a conservation station, where birds are held in captivity during winter. This station prevents the birds from migrating through the Middle East to their traditional wintering areas in Ethiopia, a hazardous journey from which only few birds returned in recent years due to human threats such as shooting. But during the summer, when the birds breed on the cliffs at the station, the birds can roam around the landscape to find food.

    Photo of the cliff where northern bald ibises breed along the river Euphrates near the city of Birecik in southern Turkey. Photo by Can Yeniyurt

    Mint plantations appear to be good foraging habitat

    Together with experts from the RSPB, the Turkish BirdLife partner Doğa Derneği has now examined which habitats the northern bald ibis uses during the breeding season, and whether birds using certain habitats raise more fledglings than others. In a study published in the journal Bird Conservation International, Can Yeniyurt, Steffen Oppel, and colleagues report that birds that foraged more frequently in mint plantations and on short grasslands covered in manure were able to raise more fledglings. They also found that birds required less effort to capture prey in those habitats, and the easier foraging may have boosted their breeding success. Conversely, there was no indication that birds relied exclusively on the artificial food provided at the breeding centre, and most birds attended less than half of the feeding events, and there was no indication that attending more feeding events increased the productivity of pairs.

    Photo of northern bald ibises foraging in a mint cultivation in southern Turkey. Photo by Can Yeniyurt

    Using the results to find potential new reintroduction sites

    The Turkish population has grown steadily from only a handful of birds in the early 1980s to now more than 200 birds, but the population is still vulnerable because it is confined to a single breeding site. With the new information about suitable habitat from the latest study, we can now cast our eye over promising landscapes in southern Turkey where nesting cliffs and foraging habitat exist to re-establish another northern bald ibis colony.

    Read the study published in the journal Bird Conservation International here.