January, 2017

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
  • Saving Monty

    Being on the extreme NW edge of their European range Montagu’s harriers have never been common in the UK, but this beautiful raptor deserves all our help to ensure it remains a UK breeder.

    A male Montagu's harrier bringing in prey for a female (Graham Catley)


    In the recent past, single pairs bred sporadically at secret locations in Dorset in the late 1970’s but it wasn’t until 1982 when the game changed with a pair nested on land at Titchwell in Norfolk. RSPB bought the land but unfortunately they didn't breed there again after that year ! Ironic, but Titchwell has become an amazing RSPB nature reserve since.

    So what happened to Monty? – Well, we continued to search for them every spring, we located breeding pairs and then guarded them round the clock. The figure head of the East Anglian protection has been Bob Image, this year in his 35th year as an RSPB species protection warden, that’s real dedication!

    Bob Image colour-ringing the two juvenile Montagu's harriers fledged by Sally and Roger in 2016 (Mark Thomas)


    The Norfolk population then began a period of UK dominance centered in The Wash, particularly around the village of North Wooton, which will be the place that most birders in their 40-50’s will have seen their first Monty. It was a secret place where birders would come and go but very few official words were ever spoken ! This population reached a peak of nine females and six nests in 1994 although productivity was always variable depending on abundance of prey items. A few pairs also started nesting in Lincolnshire. In the mid 2000’s the greater East Anglia population leveled at typically 4 pairs and interestingly and unexpectedly moved away from the Wash. In 2010 for the first time in 30 years no pairs bred or even summered in East Anglia. The population has since leveled at 2-3 pairs but the need for more action was clear.

    However, from 1996 two small populations began to establish in Central and SW England. In Central this peaked at three nests in 2001-2002 and lasted in smaller numbers until 2013, after which no successful breeding has taken place. Birds from here perhaps supplemented the SW population, which in now the stronghold in the UK with five nests in 2011. This population began with a singe territorial pair in 1982, the first confirmed breeding in 1985 and first successful nest in 1993. The most productive year was in  2011 with six nest of which five were successful - testament to the hours put in by a small band of volunteers and co-operative farmers.

    Click to enlarge

    As the species lead for RSPB I was asking the experts in Norfolk and SW England a number of questions, what happened nationally in 2012 and what could we do about it ?

    It was clear that our somewhat isolated view of this species had to be broadened, we see it for just over four months of the year and yet hope to aid its conservation! We desperately needed to know what happened to the species and in our case individual birds for the remaining seven and a half months of the year. Where do they go? What migration routes do they take? What threats do they face? Are other populations witnessing similar drops in numbers ?

    We convened a workshop and invited experts from Spain and Holland. As a result of this we have since formed a strong partnership with the Dutch Montagu’s Harrier Foundation and the UK fieldwork has been put into the wider European context.

    The main thing to come out of this partnership has been the implementation of a satellite-tagging project. Under license from the BTO and kindly sponsored by Mark Constantine (The Sound Approach) adult Montagu’s harriers have been caught and fitted with small satellite tags, enabling us to uncover their daily routines, migration routes, wintering grounds and survival.

    It has become clear that our male birds generally return to the location they bred the previous year, that two main migration routes are used with birds crossing to Africa via Gibraltar or off the SE Spanish Coast toward Morocco/Algeria. Mortality occurs most frequently on migration and on one occasion through suspected persecution in the UK before migration. Monty population are also fluctuating across Europe and this is associated with prey (vole) abundance.

    Martin Hughes-Games releasing Sally, tagged in Norfolk in 2016 (Mark Thomas) 


    So where are we? The UK population has stabilized at five-seven pairs, all nests are being very well protected with fences to stop predation and together with sympathetic land owners we are helping the birds produce maximum numbers of fledged juveniles. There is also a real need to build support for this species by making information more accessible and interesting to the public and birders. However, disturbance and illegal activity clearly has a impact on this species, so we have to be careful but we will continue looking for breeding sites from where we can operate a public viewing scheme such as recently on our Blacktoft Sands Reserve.

    2014 was a fantastic year for productivity with 20 fledged juveniles, the highest number since 2007 and from only seven nests. So what about the future ? We need to locate and protect as many nests as we can find, with this in mind we recently launched a Montagu's harrier hotline. In 2016 the hotline produced nearly 50 pieces of information/sightings and enabled us to locate and keep track of individual birds and breeding pairs. Montagu's harriers return to the UK from late April, so if you have a sighting please email us wildlife@rspb.org.uk and follow us on twitter @ukmontagus

    Finally, Sally is the poster-girl at the moment, going the furthest south (in Ghana now) that any of the tagged birds have ever gone , but I will let you into a secret, she was named after Bob's dog !

    Sally is now in Ghana, 2250 miles from where she was tagged in Norfolk !


    Montagu's harriers are very special birds and we are determined that with the continuing help of volunteers, farmers and sponsors it's a species we are not going to lose!

    Visit our tagging page here



  • Achieving sustainable species recovery - sharing lessons from the Stone-curlew LIFE project with the world

     On 28 February 2017, Martin Harper will be hosting the international EU LIFE stone-curlew project conference at the Cambridge Conservation Initiative’s David Attenborough Building.

    People from across conservation, farming and the public sector will be coming together to celebrate the heroes of stone-curlew conservation, and look in more detail at how to achieve successful species recovery in the long term.

    It’s a chance to hear from people involved in the stone-curlew project and other species recovery projects from across Europe and beyond, and to find out more by visiting displays and sharing experiences. Together we’ll be considering what really makes for a successful project, and what we need to do to ensure that future policies, market structures and communities can help secure a place for stone-curlews and other iconic species in the UK.

    Places are limited so must be booked in advance by emailing emily.field@rspb.org.uk



    An exemplary project

    A stare from a stone-curlew’s huge yellow eyes was once thought to cure jaundice. Now the stone-curlew is in the public eye as a success story. Loss of semi-natural grass heath and downland meant that birds nested in crops where they were vulnerable to destruction by machinery. With a population of less than 150 pairs in the 1980s, the bird was on the brink of extinction in the UK but a partnership between conservationists and farmers, to protect nests within crops, more than doubled its population.

    However, finding the nests of such shy birds is very labour intensive so longer-term solutions were required. Using agri-environment schemes under UK and European agricultural policy, farmers have been creating plots of bare ground for stone-curlews to nest on in safety. The management of the remaining natural short-sward grassland has also been improved to provide more suitable nesting and foraging habitat.

    Over the last four years, an EU LIFE funded project has sought to establish more sustainable ways to give stone-curlews a home and volunteers and landowners are becoming increasingly involved in protecting the bird, and creating enough suitable safe nesting habitat, so that we can start to reduce our investment in hands-on conservation intervention.

    To achieve the ultimate goal of sustainability for our stone-curlews, the LIFE project looked to secure more of this safe nesting habitat through provision of land management advice, and develop a team of highly-skilled volunteers who can monitor nests. We have also worked closely with Natural England to design land management options in the new Countryside Stewardship scheme which will help to ensure that farmers can afford to create homes for stone-curlews for years to come.

    For more information and project newsletters go to www.rspb.org.uk/securingthestonecurlew  

  • Using science to defend the laws that protect nature

    Guest blog by Fiona Sanderson, RSPB Senior Conservation Scientist, Alison Beresford, RSPB Conservation Scientist and Richard Gregory, RSPB Head of Species Monitoring and Research at the RSPB Centre for Conservation Science

    On 7 December 2016, the European Commission agreed that the Nature Directives (as the Birds and Habitats Directives are commonly known) should not be changed, but instead should be implemented more effectively. The review of these vital laws has concluded that they are not just fit for purpose, but where used properly are some of the most effective nature conservation laws in the world. This is a huge victory for nature protection across national boundaries.

    The RSPB Centre for Conservation Science has played a vital role in providing scientific evidence to RSPB and BirdLife campaigns, and to the European Commission, to demonstrate the effectiveness of Nature Directives, and how this legislation contributes to meeting the EU’s global environmental commitments.

    Photo of Arne RSPB reserve, a Natura 2000 site protected under the Habitats Directive by Ben Hall

    The Birds Directive positively affects bird population trends

    Two recent papers published in the journal Conservation Letters (here and here) show that bird species subject to special protection measures under the Birds Directive have more positive population trends that those that do not. In the first paper, led by the RSPB Centre for Conservation Science with BirdLife International and Durham University, we analysed population trends of all breeding bird species in the EU from 1980-2012 and 2001-2012. Species that are the subject of special conservation measures under the Birds Directive, known as Annex I species, did better than those that were not protected. This was true even for those whose ranges were predicted to shrink under the climate change observed between 1980-2012, suggesting that the protection of the Birds Directive can help ameliorate the impact of such large-scale threats. Although Annex I species had more positive trends in the original 15 EU countries throughout the time period, the effect was only apparent in the ‘new’ EU countries, which joined in the 21st century, after 2001. This is exactly as we would predict if bird population trends were driven by such protection.

    The second paper, led by the European Bird Census Council, the RSPB Centre for Conservation Science, and BirdLife International, used more detailed data from 25 EU countries on 39 farmland bird species over three decades, collated by the Pan-European Common Bird Monitoring Scheme. This work examines the impact of Special Protection Areas (SPAs), sites designated for Annex I and other protected species under the Birds Directive, on farmland birds. It demonstrates that over the period 1981-2012, farmland Annex I species had higher population growth rates with increasing SPA coverage compared to non-Annex I species, suggesting that SPAs may be more effective in protecting target than non-target species. This work adds to that above by indicating that SPAs targeted at these species could form an effective mechanism through which the Birds Directive can drive population trends.

    The Nature Directives can help the EU to meet global environmental commitments on nature and biodiversity

    In another recent Conservation Letters paper (here), scientists from the RSPB Centre for Conservation Science analysed the contributions of the Nature Directives to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and other Multilateral Environmental Agreements.

    The findings demonstrate the importance of the Nature Directives for fulfilling the EU’s international nature conservation obligations. The Natura 2000 network, sites designated for protection under the Nature Directives (including SPAs), makes a significant contribution to achieving the CBD target to protect 17% of terrestrial areas, while EU species protection rules help achieve the target to prevent the “extinction of known threatened species”. The research also confirms that the Nature Directives are helping to achieve climate change mitigation targets by storing carbon, with estimated carbon stocks per unit area in Natura 2000 sites 43% higher than the average across the rest of the EU.

    Of course, it is impossible to say what the EU would have been like without the Nature Directives, but there is ample evidence that they have yielded additional benefits. For example, over 50% of Natura 2000 sites are not covered by any other form of protected area designation, and countries joining the EU show substantial increases in their coverage by protected areas around the time of accession. This work suggests that in order for the EU to meet its international commitments, if the Nature Directives did not exist, the EU would have to invent them.

    The future of the Nature Directives

    We welcome the European Commission’s call for improved implementation of the Nature Directives. Although our work demonstrates their many positive benefits for nature, they could do more. Gamero et al.’s study (discussed above, here) showed that, although the combination of agri-environment schemes and the Birds Directive led to improved farmland bird population trends, critically, they were insufficient to reverse the long-term downward trend. The authors suggest that the creation of more SPAs in agricultural areas could help. Moreover, our other work (here) indicates that long-distance migrants to Africa do not benefit from its protection, and that many of these species continue to decline.

    The future for nature within the UK has undoubtedly become more uncertain following the vote to leave the EU. The Institute for European Environmental Policy has found that even here, a country with a longer history of conservation legislation than most, “[the] Directives have added a layer of protection for nature ... above and beyond that provided in previous national legislation”. RSPB scientists are now working with RSPB policy colleagues to examine how benefits of the Nature Directives can be retained after the UK leaves the EU.

    For more information on the Nature Directives visit the RSPB website


    Beresford, A. E., Buchanan, G. M., Sanderson, F. J., Jefferson, R. and Donald, P. F. (2016) Beresford et al. 2016. The Contributions of the EU Nature Directives to the CBD and Other Multilateral Environmental Agreements, Conservation Letters 9, 479-488, doi:10.1111/conl.12259.

    Gamero, A., Brotons, L., Brunner, A., Foppen, R., Fornasari, L., Gregory, R. D., Herrando, S., Hořák, D., Jiguet, F., Kmecl, P., Lehikoinen, A., Lindström, Å., Paquet, J.-Y., Reif, J., Sirkiä, P. M., Škorpilová, J., van Strien, A., Szép, T., Telenský, T., Teufelbauer, N., Trautmann, S., van Turnhout, C. A.M., Vermouzek, Z., Vikstrøm, T. and Voříšek, P., 2016. Tracking Progress Towards EU Biodiversity Strategy Targets: EU Policy Effects in Preserving its Common Farmland Birds, Conservation Letters Accepted Author Manuscript. doi:10.1111/conl.12292.

    Sanderson, F. J., Pople, R. G., Ieronymidou, C., Burfield, I. J., Gregory, R. D., Willis, S. G., Howard, C., Stephens, P. A., Beresford, A. E. and Donald, P. F., 2016. Assessing the Performance of EU Nature Legislation in Protecting Target Bird Species in an Era of Climate Change, Conservation Letters 9, 172-180, doi:10.1111/conl.12196.s