February, 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
  • Does marine biodiversity have a positive effect on human wellbeing?

    Guest blog by Dr Rebecca Jefferson, Senior Conservation Scientist, RSPB Centre for Conservation Science

    It is a sunny afternoon. You’re walking along the beach, listening to the waves breaking and feeling the gentle crunch of sand underfoot.  After a busy day at work, this is just what you needed – you’re already feeling better.  Can being at the coast really improve your mood?  And, if so, why does it happen? 

    In a study recently published in the journal, Marine Policy, we investigated whether marine biodiversity can have a positive effect on human wellbeing through asking people to rate a series of photos and videos of the marine environment.  The findings show that the more different species a person thought the marine scene contained, the greater the wellbeing benefit it could provide.  Similarly, there was greater potential wellbeing benefit from watching animals being active, such as birds flocking or diving for food, than when they were inactive.  The findings of this research are important for our understandings of the wellbeing benefits of nature, and the role biodiversity and animal behaviour play in that relationship.

    Restoring our attention through nature

    Much is written in psychology about restoration – the repair through spending time in nature of our attention from mundane tasks.  However, the work done so far on restoration theory hasn’t addressed two elements: firstly, the role of biodiversity – does more nature give a greater level of restoration? And secondly, most research has been done in urban parks – what about the sea?  Many of us seek out the coast and seashore - is the restoration potential there greater than elsewhere?

    This project investigated the restoration potential of the coast and looked at the role of marine biodiversity in this restoration.  To study this, 1478 respondents were recruited through a market research company experienced in conducting online research.  This may seem a strange way to assess the impacts of visiting the coast, however, it is the best way to conduct a controlled experiment of this nature – it would be difficult to find an opportunity to give large numbers of people an identical nature experience on a beach!  Therefore, an online questionnaire provides the structure to investigate these questions. 

    Measuring wellbeing benefits of marine biodiversity

    The questionnaire included 12 images with high, medium or low biodiversity (as rated by two conservation scientists).  Respondents were shown each image and asked four questions which assessed how biodiverse they considered the scene was, how potentially restorative it was and how positive they felt about the scene.  In addition, we assessed whether the activity of animals people might see at the coast affected restoration. To do this, respondents were shown six 30 second videos, three of inactive animals (e.g. a gannet at a nesting colony) and three of the same species being much more active  (e.g. a gannet diving). For each video, respondent's restoration and positivity were measured. 

    Videos of active animals such as this diving gannet, were considered to have greater restoration potential, and therefore improve human wellbeing, than videos of inactive animals. Photo by Ed Marshall (rspb-images.com)

    Potential benefits of marine biodiversity – the more biodiversity the merrier

    The project found that images which respondents perceived as being more biodiverse had greater restoration potential, meaning that where there was a greater variety of species, there was a greater likelihood that your wellbeing would be improved.  The results also showed that respondents over 35 years old rated images as having a greater potential wellbeing benefit.  When viewing the videos, respondents rated the active animal videos as giving a greater potential wellbeing benefit than the inactive animal videos.  It was also interesting to find a good match between how biodiverse the respondents considered the images to be with how biodiverse our experts rated the images.

    Coastal scenes with high biodiversity, such as this image of flocking knot, were considered to have greater restoration potential, and therefore improve human wellbeing than low biodiversity images. Photo by Chris Gomersall (rspb-images.com)

    These findings build on previous research to understand the connections between people and nature.  Similar results about perceived biodiversity and potential restoration for coasts as has been found in urban parks suggests that another reason for conserving our marine biodiversity is the benefits it could provide for human wellbeing.  Investigating the role of animal activity as part of a coastal experience is particularly novel and these results have opened new avenues in our exploration of how human wellbeing benefits from interactions with nature. 

    To the beach

    So, the take home message is to go to the coast and see what fascinating biodiversity and animal behaviour you can spot.  It’ll do you good.

    Photo of people enjoying the beach at RSPB Minsmere reserve by Nick Cunard (rspb-images.com)


    This was a collaborative project led by the European Centre for Environment and Human Health, part of University of Exeter Medical School, which at the time the research was conducted was supported by the European Regional Development Fund and the European Social Fund Convergence Programme for Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly.  Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) also supported the work.  Plymouth University and the National Marine Aquarium, Plymouth were partners on the project.
    Thanks to all the respondents for their time and contributions.


    Mathew P. White, Abigail Weeks, Tom Hooper, Luke Bleakley, Deborah Cracknell, Rebecca Lovell, Rebecca L. Jefferson, Marine wildlife as an important component of coastal visits: The role of perceived biodiversity and species behaviour, Marine Policy, Volume 78, pages 80-89, April 2017

  • Impacts of non-native mammals on island wildlife and their restoration in the UK

    Guest blog by Andrew Stanbury, Conservation Scientist, RSPB Centre for Conservation Science

    The introduction of non-native mammals, such as rats, cats and stoats, poses a significant threat to island biodiversity across the world and they have caused in many species extinctions.

    The islands around the UK and the crown dependencies hold internationally important wildlife, and these are not immune to the impacts of introduced species.

    In a study carried out by the RSPB (in collaboration with Natural England, Scottish Natural Heritage, The National Trust, The National Trust for Scotland and the National Wildlife Management Centre) we revealed where removing non-native mammals could potentially see the greatest benefits to wildlife. We also highlight the key islands around the UK that need protection from further non-native incursions. This research provides the first step to developing feasibility studies for beneficial island restoration projects.

    Shetland and the Orkney Isles high priority for restoration

    Our work has shown that many of the islands where the removal of non-native mammals would have the greatest benefit to wildlife are Scottish, with the Shetland and the Orkney Isles being of particular importance. Many of these islands have non-native species present; however, they still hold key wildlife populations which are vulnerable to their impacts.

    Islands, such as the Hebrides, represent a refuge from intensive agriculture for species like Corncrakes. Picture credit: Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)

    How to define a UK ‘island’

    Ever wondered how many islands there are around the UK coastline? It depends on how you define an ‘island’ but this work suggests there are 9688 parcels of land that remain above the high-tide line, but were distinct (i.e. surrounded by water) at low-tide.

    UK islands support a wealth of wildlife including those on the edge of their range

    The islands around the UK and the crown dependencies are well renowned for their large seabird colonies; however they hold a wealth of other wildlife, with large concentrations of breeding waders and important reptile and bat populations.

    These islands form the northern and southern extremities of the country, with the Shetland Isles in the north and the Channel Isles in the south.  This means that they hold the populations of species on the edge of their global or European range; for example red-necked phalaropes and whimbrel in the north and lesser white-toothed shrew, green and wall lizard in the south.

    A history and culture of vertebrate introductions

    Several thousand years of human culture, activity and movements have resulted in many accidental or deliberate island introductions.

    A range of non-native mammals, such as brown rats, house mice, American mink, feral cats, hedgehogs, stoats and feral ferrets, occur on UK islands.

    Even those species that we consider native to the UK mainland can have impacts on island wildlife. The severity of their impact varies depending on the species. In the UK we have lost colonies of Manx shearwater, storm-petrel and other seabirds as a result of invasive mammal introductions in the past.

    Island restoration – successfully removing rats from St Agnes, and Lundy

    Over the last decade the RSPB has been working with island communities, and other partner organisations to develop island restoration projects, such as the rat eradications on St Agnes in the Isles of Scilly (declared rat free in 2016) and Lundy in the Bristol Channel (declared rat free in 2006). It is still early days, but the eradications have started to show real benefits for wildlife, particular seabirds, on these islands. Since the eradications, breeding Manx shearwaters have increased three-fold and ten-fold on the two islands, respectively; while both have been recolonised by storm-petrels.

    Beginning island restoration in the Shiants

    The RSPB has recently been working with Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) and the Nicolson family to lead a restoration project to remove black rats from the Shiants Isles in the Hebrides. The islands are one of the most important seabird breeding sites in Europe, with 10% of the UK puffin population.

    Approximately 95% of the UK Puffin population breed on our offshore islands. This species has now been classified as globally Vulnerable to extinction by the IUCN. Picture credit: Andrew Stanbury

    Increasing island biosecurity is essential to protect biodiversity

    Unfortunately, accidental introductions continue to occur on UK islands and these pose a continuing threat to the wildlife present. Stoats were not recorded on Orkney until 2010, but probably arrived due to an accidental introduction. They are now starting to adversely impact the natural wildlife on these islands. Within the last year, there have been rat incursions on several important seabird islands including the Copeland Islands in Northern Island and Coquet in Northumberland. Ensuring that our finest seabirds sites are protected from invasive species is one of our highest UK conservation priorities.

    Coquet Island off Northumberland is a key site for Roseate Tern. With the exception of a couple of pairs elsewhere it holds all the UK breeding population, with 111 pairs in 2015. Preventing accidental introductions of rats and other non-native mammals is vital for their conservation. Picture credit: David Wootton (rspb-images.com)

    Addressing the problem

    The RSPB is working with other stakeholders to develop best practice methods for rodent eradication and biosecurity and to deliver these on priority islands over the next few years.

    References: Stanbury, A., Thomas, S., Aegerter, J., Brown, A., Bullock, D., Eaton, M., Lock, L., Luxmoore, R., Roy, S., Whitaker, S., Oppel, S., 2017. Prioritising islands in the United Kingdom and crown dependencies for the eradication of invasive alien vertebrates and rodent biosecurity. Eur. J. Wildl. Res. 63, 31.