March, 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
  • Volunteering to help save little terns

    Every summer, teams of volunteer little tern wardens support the EU LIFE Little Tern Project by monitoring the beaches at sites around the UK where these special birds make their homes.

    Volunteering at a little tern colony provides an opportunity to meet new people and be part of a team working on some of the most beautiful beaches around the UK.

    Today we hear from guest blogger, Christine Maresma Pares, Little Tern Volunteer, Gronant, Denbighshire, about her experiences.

    I started volunteering for the Little Tern Project in 2015, after reading an article in the local press asking for volunteers to help monitor and protect the last little tern colony in Wales. I’ve always loved birds and thought it was something I could get involved with during the summer months, especially as it was quite local to me. So I went along one day and introduced myself to the wardens at Gronant Dunes. That summer I went at least twice weekly and assisted in anyway I could, be it ‘scaring’ away predators, or litter picking on the beach.  Last year I was ‘in at the beginning’ of the season and so was able to help with the construction of the electric fences put up around the little tern colony to deter predators such as foxes and stoats. Volunteers can always find something to do, and removing litter from the electric fence after high tides is another task that needs tackling.

    Little terns will soon be arriving on our shores to nest Photo credit: Chris Gomersall (

    At the end of the season I attended the AGM organised by Denbighshire Countryside Services/Denbighshire County Council and along with a few other regular volunteers decided to set up the North Wales Little Tern Group, of which I became secretary, to help raise awareness of the little terns’ situation. We’ve managed to recruit more volunteers and raised some funds for equipment. Word is spreading and the group is gathering momentum. I’m really pleased with the progress we’ve made, and proud to be a part of it.

    I might not have been a volunteer for long but I thoroughly enjoy getting out and about in all weathers and meeting like-minded people who have become friends. In the winter months I am still occupied attending meetings and writing up minutes, dealing with correspondence, and commenting on social media. Since getting involved I have increased my knowledge of little terns and other wildlife, and really appreciate the fact that I’m still learning – ‘after all these years! 

    As well as belonging to the Little Tern Group, I also volunteer for the North Wales Wildlife Trust. I think there are lots of volunteering opportunities to suit all types of people and it’s great to be a part of something like this. If anyone is considering volunteering I’d say go ahead, the benefits are undeniable.

    If you’d like to find out about little tern volunteering opportunities please click on this link

  • Taking action for birds in England

    Guest blog by Dr Guy Anderson, Principal Research Manager, RSPB Centre for Conservation Science

    Researching the causes of wildlife declines and putting tested management solutions into place to help species recover frequently requires partnerships – to allow work to take place at a big enough scale, in the right places, and with enough resource.  The statutory (governmental) conservation agencies in the UK have a long history of working closely with NGOs and academia - helping to ensure that their conservation policies and practice are informed by the best available evidence.  A great example of such a partnership is the joint programme of species research and recovery projects run by the RSPB and Natural England called Action for Birds in England (or ‘AfBiE’). This programme has run since 2005 and, often working with other partners on individual projects, has produced some remarkable conservation success stories for birds in England. 

    Cirl bunting population recovery

    Back in 1989, the cirl bunting was down to just 118 pairs in the UK. Research identified the causes (changes in agricultural practices removing both winter seed food and summer insect food from the landscape), solutions were tested and rolled out across the entire range of this bird in South West England, as part of targeted wildlife-friendly farming scheme options. Much of the solution testing – including the establishment (through translocation) of a new population in Cornwall - population monitoring and refinement of conservation management was done through AfBiE. The result? A survey in 2016 showed that the population had exceeded 1,000 breeding pairs. Find out more about our work on Cirl bunting.

    Photo of Cirl bunting by Andy Hay (

    Testing and implementing conservation solutions for Stone curlew

    The stone-curlew’s need for bare stony ground in open landscapes in spring and summer put them at risk from changes in how heathland, areas of open chalk hills and arable farmland were managed in the 20th century.  Much of the detailed ecological studies, and testing and deployment of conservation solutions for this species in recent years have been carried out as part of the AfBiE Programme. Lack of suitable sparsely vegetated nesting areas and the threat of nest destruction from farm machinery were identified as the main threats, with human disturbance not helping the situation. Direct nest protection and providing safe bare ground nesting plots in suitable undisturbed situations worked a treat and the population has recovered, with the help of substantial funding from the EU LIFE+ Programme in recent years.  Ongoing work in partnership with the University of East Anglia is testing and refining the management advice for nesting plots on farmland to make them as useful as possible for stone curlews and a whole range of other birds, plants and insects. We are tracking adult stone curlews, fitted with accurate GPS tags, to understand how they use their landscapes, and plots provided for them. Find out more about our Stone curlew work in our blog series

    Photo of Stone curlew by Andy Hay (

    Conserving wetland breeding birds

    The recovery of the UK’s bittern population has been monitored and documented through the AfBiE programme. Similarly, breeding waders in England have been monitored, and a wide range of conservation management solutions tested to try to improve their breeding success. These have shown good success where mammalian predators can be excluded, and the methods are now being deployed on nature reserves with positive results for waders.

    Photo of Bittern by John Bridges (

    Developing and implementing conservation measures at a wider countryside level

    The Action for Birds in England programme has funded research and development of special measures for two of our fastest declining farmland birds: corn bunting and turtle dove. Both now have their own bespoke management packages in the Countryside Stewardship agri-environment scheme in England, which include high density crop strips for corn bunting and special management of seed-rich habitat for turtle doves.

    Species recovery research still underway for corn bunting, curlew, ring ouzel, turtle dove and willow tit

    The scope of the AfBiE programme, from monitoring through problem solving and solution testing, all the way through to full-blown species recovery projects, is one of its great strengths; reflecting the wide range of capabilities and expertise present in both RSPB and Natural England staff.

    Photo of Ring ouzel by Andy Hay (

    Other work still underway within the AfBiE programme includes studies aimed at identifying the causes of populations declines in hawfinch, starling and wood warbler, and testing land management conservation solutions for curlew, ring ouzel and willow tit. RSPB and other NGOs in the environmental and conservation sector don’t always agree with everything that the UK statutory conservation agencies say. 

    That’s entirely right and proper – our role is to challenge where necessary (and be challenged back for that matter).  But our role is also to help the agencies deliver their conservation objectives by ensuring that their policies are based on the best available evidence. Many of their objectives are closely shared with ours (you’d hope so, really!), and working in partnership has delivered, and continues to deliver, more conservation bang for your buck than either organisation could have achieved alone.

  • Concern for curlew: A recent published paper shows that 7 out of the 13 species from the curlew and godwit group face extinction

    Guest blog by Sarah Sanders, RSPB Curlew Recovery Programme Manager

    It was wonderful to wake up to the call of a curlew on the BBC Radio 4 Today Programme (50 minutes into clip). The story behind it was deeply worrying.

    A ground-breaking assessment

    In collaboration with the British Trust for Ornithology and the International Wader Study Group, our very own scientists Daniel Brown, David Douglas, Graeme Buchanan and Nicola Crockford are co-authors on a new ground breaking assessment, published in Bird Conservation International, of the threats facing the Numeniini group (this is the scientific term for  the curlews and godwits). This is a group of 13 large wader species consisting of the upland sandpiper, four godwit and eight curlew species. Four of these species occur regularly in the UK: The Eurasian curlew, whimbrel and black tailed godwit which breed and winter in the UK and the arctic-breeding bar tailed godwit which is seen around our coasts in winter. 

    It’s shocking that over half of these species are of conservation concern, including three of the UK species. Four are globally threatened with extinction. Already this century the Eskimo curlew, a former widespread and abundant species in the Americas is probably already extinct while for the slender-billed curlew, which wintered in the Mediterranean Basin, right on the UK’s doorstep, there has been no undisputed record for over 20 years.

    The study collated the views of over 100 wader experts from around the world, and concluded that the main threat, internationally, to the Numeniini group is the loss and deterioration of coastal estuaries and wetlands which are under increasing pressure from development and disturbance, especially in Asia. The Yellow Sea, an extensive shallow sea between North East China and the Korean Peninsula (the Asian ecological equivalent of the North Sea), is under huge pressure. A quarter of mudflat feeding areas have been lost since the 1980s and much of the remainder is heavily degraded. This is pushing at least 27 species of migratory waterbirds of the East Asian Australasian Flyway, towards extinction making this region one of the highest nature conservation priorities both in Asia and the world.

    In the UK our coastal wetlands have, to a large extent, escaped the loss and damage we see around the world. This has not happened by chance. The world-leading European Nature Directives have ensured that our major estuaries are designated and recognised for their international role in supporting globally important populations of waterbirds.  This has been backed by effective conservation programmes and campaigns to safeguard these vital places.  As the UK develops its plans to leave the European Union it is vital that we ensure that these important places are protected at least to the same standard – and that we take every opportunity to go even further and secure their future.

    UK has a special responsibility for the Eurasian Curlew

    Here in the UK the main threat is to the much-loved Eurasian curlew. The UK has a special responsibility for this species as it is the third most important country in the world; hosting up to 27% of the breeding population. The Eurasian curlew is in serious trouble here, having declined by 48% since the mid 90s. Similar declines have been observed widely elsewhere across its range. This led to it being classified as Near Threatened by IUCN and recently up-listed to Red on the UK Birds of Conservation Concern list.

    The combination of global importance of the UK breeding population, adverse conservation status and rapid decline makes the curlew arguably the most urgent bird conservation priority in the UK. We need to take action now because if not the decline will almost certainly continue and curlew may disappear from some parts of the UK. For example in Northern Ireland there have been 82% declines with less than 500 breeding pairs remaining.

    Eurasian Curlew. Photo by Andy Hay (

    The RSPB UK Curlew Recovery Programme

    The RSPB is responding with a five year curlew recovery programme with the aim of improving the conservation prospects for the species. We are now coming to the end of the second year so this is a brief update on progress.

    A main component of this first phase is a scientific trial management project which is testing the potential for a combination of habitat management and predator control interventions to stabilise and recover the breeding population.  Working at six sites, which are a mixture of private farmland and reserves, across the four countries, we hope the findings will inform the development of future evidence-based ‘curlew-friendly’ land management options.  Although it is too early to draw any conclusions, following the first year of interventions we can say that the methods we are trialing appear to be moving in the right direction for curlew.

    We are also starting to roll-out immediate action. As breeding curlew are widely dispersed across landscapes, we are building partnerships with farmers, land managers and organisations so that we can maximise impact for the species. The RSPB can’t do this on its own.

    The world has likely already lost two species of curlew. We need to do all we can to ensure that we don’t lose the call of the Eurasian curlew too!