September, 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
  • Gough Island restoration programme - Gough Team 63

    Great news: our Gough Island restoration programme has been given the green light!

    Meet the intrepid conservationists who'll spend 13 months on one of the planet's most remote islands.

    Their mission: help save some of the world's most endangered seabirds.

    Fabrice Le Bouard, Jaimie Cleeland and Kate Lawrence are part of this massive operation, managed by the RSPB and part-funded by DEFRA and the US-based National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, to save the Critically Endangered Tristan albatross and Gough bunting; and the Endangered Atlantic petrel and McGillivray's prion from extinction.

    What will the team do on Gough?

    Gough, a mountainous island in the middle of the South Atlantic, is a truly special place. Part of the UK Overseas Territory of Tristan da Cunha, it's home to a number of endangered birds. The birds are facing a serious threat from introduced house mice, which arrived on the island from ships during the 1800s. The mice have grown in number — and size — and have proved a dangerous neighbour to the ground-nesting seabirds. You may have seen images or videos of the mice eating the birds' chicks alive on their nests.

    The RSPB will begin an island-wide eradication project in 2019, but right now there's a lot of preparation to be done. Bait dropped for mice could also be taken by the endangered Gough bunting and Gough moorhen. Fabrice, Jaimie and Kate will study how these birds can be safely kept out of the way while the mice are removed. They'll also study the remarkable ecology of Gough so we have a baseline against which we can measure the recovery of the island once the mice are gone for good.

    Introducing the team

    Fabrice, Jaimie and Kate will be the Gough 63 team, joining a legacy of Gough researchers that goes back to 1955.

    They are experts at conservation work on islands. Fabrice has six years' experience in reserves bird management and Kate has experience in captive care of birds. With additional avicultural training and support of experts from the National Trust and RZSS, the team are fully equipped to successfully trial our captive management plan. This is a major part of the eradication preparations, and the results will enable us to finalise the plan and logistics for captive care of the endangered Gough bunting and Gough moorhen on this challenging island!

    From left to right, Jaimie, Fabrice & Kate

    Fabrice Le Bouard 

    Fabrice has a clear passion for island conservation; five years of island experience with albatrosses, penguins, seals, and petrels — all of which are found on Gough. Fabrice has also worked on our Nightingale Island and Atlantic puffin projects. 

    Fabrice: "I first heard of Gough ten years ago when I applied to be a field assistant — I didn't get the job but Gough's seabird community is exceptional in diversity and numbers... It became a kind of Holy Grail after which I've been running for years. 

    "I think if you like spending time outside in a preserved and beautiful natural environment, hiking and working with seabirds, you shouldn't go to any remote Sub-Antarctic island... because you'll just want to go back — and that's what happened with me."

    Jaimie Cleeland

    Growing up on the island of Tasmania, Kate and Jaimie caught the island bug at a young age! Jaimie spent three seasons on Macquarie Island, in the southwest Pacific Ocean, studying albatrosses and petrels before focussing her PhD on the effects that climate change, fisheries, and habitat degradation have on albatross. 

    Jaimie: "Gough Island is higher, wetter, bird-ier and more remote than any other island I have worked on in the past! I am keen to explore its gullies, peaks and coastal escarpment... The wildness of remote islands captures my sense of adventure. On remote islands, I become immersed in nature and at the same time can contribute to their conservation."

    Kate Lawrence

    Until 2012 Kate represented Australia in international canoe slalom! Since moving into conservation, she's spent two seasons on Macquarie Island and has experience in Australia, New Zealand, and the Sub-Antarctic. Kate also brings invaluable bird husbandry experience to the team.

    Kate: "I can't wait to see what joys and challenges Gough will throw at us! The Gough Island Restoration Programme is bigger than just our team and I'm looking forward to playing my part in the wider effort, working hard on the island to achieve our goals and contributing to this important project. I hope that the captive trials provide valuable information to safeguard the birds from the potential impacts of baiting."

    The on-island teams have been central to the progress of the Gough programme so far, and 2017/18 involves some crucial work towards a successful rodent eradication. Our thanks go to all of the past overwintering teams as we wish the Gough 63 team a fantastic year with us.

    Follow the team and this exciting programme as it progresses on the Saving Species blog and the upcoming new Gough Island Restoration Programme website.


    The Gough Island Restoration Programme is being carried out by the RSPB in partnership with Tristan da CunhaBirdLife South Africa and the Department of Environmental Affairs in South Africa.

    The programme is part-funded by the RSPB, the UK government, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and other generous individuals and organisations.

    If you would like to support our efforts to save the Critically Endangered Tristan albatross and Gough bunting, please contact John Kelly, or you can donate using our online form

  • Benefits of coastal managed realignment for society

    Blog by Dr Michael MacDonald, Senior Conservation Scientist, RSPB Centre for Conservation Science

    Conservation actions, such as coastal managed realignment, have the potential to deliver both nature conservation and other benefits to people, but these benefits are rarely quantified. In a recent paper we highlight how taking into account ecosystem services, such as climate change mitigation and nature-based recreation, outweighs the loss of agricultural production.

    TESSA: Toolkit for Ecosystem Service Site-based Assessment
    We assessed the benefits of managed realignment for people at two sites in the UK: Hesketh Outmarsh West in northwest England, and the Inner Forth in Scotland. To do this we used a toolkit that the RSPB has helped to develop in partnership with colleagues in other organisations as part of the Cambridge Conservation Initiative. This toolkit is called TESSA (Toolkit for Ecosystem Service Site-based Assessment), and it guides the user through potential methods to collect relevant data to make comparisons between different states at a site of interest. We used the toolkit to collect our own data, or to use suitable published data, on climate change mitigation (sequestration/emission of greenhouse gases and accretion of carbon-rich sediments), flood protection, nature-based recreation, and agricultural production.

    What we were comparing
    In our case, we were comparing managed realignment with the continued provision of hard sea defences, allowing agricultural production on claimed land. At Hesketh Outmarsh West, the sea walls had been breached several years previously, and we now have a nature reserve managed by the RSPB. We compared the provision of ecosystem services at this reserve with those from adjacent land that was still being farmed. In the other site, at the Inner Forth, realignment is not in place yet but proposed at several sites, including Inch of Ferryton, so we compared the current situation with how we predict things would be if realignment took place.
    We found that agricultural production is lost when realignment takes place and land is flooded, although at the Inner Forth some farmland would remain. However, there would be considerable benefits in terms of climate change mitigation, because carbon-rich sediments accrete on the intertidal habitats, removing that carbon from the cycle of emission to the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. The creation of new wetland habitat not only attracts great numbers of birds, such as wintering wigeon and teal, or breeding waders such as lapwings, but also allows people to enjoy the salt marshes, for bird watching and walking; because of this, these sites are especially important for local people.

    Photo: Hesketh Outmarsh West following breaches of the sea wall, RSPB

    Valuing ecosystem services
    It is difficult to put monetary values on ecosystem services that are not part of a formal market, and there is uncertainty associated with this. However, it can also be a useful way to integrate the values of different services that are measured using different units. We estimated that the net annual value of services (i.e. the difference between the realigned and agricultural states) for Hesketh Outmarsh West was £262,935 for (£1460.75/ha), and for Inch of Ferryton (one of the Inner Forth sites) was £93,216 (£574.70/ha). The value for Hesketh Outmarsh West was higher because we included flood protection provided by an improved seawall that was constructed as part of the realignment process.

    Future realignment plans
    At Hesketh Outmarsh, further realignment has already taken place since we did our analysis, with adjacent sea walls being breached just last week. At the Inner Forth, it continues to be promoted by the RSPB as a response to coastal squeeze and the desire to create habitat for wildlife. The results of this study help to support the arguments for managed realignment elsewhere in the UK by demonstrating that people can also benefit from it!

    MacDonald, M.A., de Ruyck, C., Field, R.H., Bedford, A. & Bradbury, R.B. (2017) Benefits of coastal managed realignment for society: Evidence from ecosystem service assessments in two UK regions. Estuarine, Coastal and Shelf Science.

    Photo: Inch of Ferryton sea wall, by Chris de Ruyck

  • Testing conservation delivery for curlew

    Blog by Dr David Douglas, Principal Conservation Scientist; Dr Irena Tomankova, Conservation Scientist, and Sarah Sanders

    The plight of the Eurasian curlew is now established as a major conservation priority in the UK. Based on the combination of global conservation status (IUCN Near-Threatened), the global importance of the UK breeding population (19-27%) and the rapid decline of the UK breeding population (-48% since 1995), RSPB and others have argued that the curlew should be considered the UK’s highest conservation priority bird species (Brown et al 2015).

    A recently published study in Bird Study, led by BTO and co-authored by David Douglas of the RSPB (Franks et al 2017), adds to our knowledge of the factors associated with curlew declines. Using BBS data, the aim of the study was to examine whether there was national-scale support for drivers of population change identified from previous regional or site-based studies, such as predation or afforestation of open ground, and a range of other potential effects including climate. The study looked at correlates of abundance in two time periods separately, 1995-99 and 2007-11, and correlates of change in abundance between these two periods.

    Full details of the results are available in the paper, but key findings are that arable farmland and woodland were both associated with lower curlew abundance and greater population declines. The woodland effect may relate to replacement of curlew breeding areas with woodland and also the role of woodland plantations in supporting higher generalist predator abundances including foxes. Curlew abundance was positively associated with extent of protected area coverage (such as SSSI’s, SAC’s and SPA’s). Climatic effects were also detected, with warmer temperatures and lower summer rainfall associated with lower abundance and more negative population change. Associations were found with aspects of game management; abundance was positively associated with higher abundance of some gamebirds; abundance and population change were negatively associated with numbers of generalist predators; abundance in the most recent period was negatively associated with the extent of moorland burning for red grouse.

    Photo: Curlew, by Andy Hay (

    How can we use this and other evidence to recover curlew across the UK?
    Climatic impacts may become an increasing issue but are hard to manage, particularly in the short term. The current provision of protected areas for breeding curlew has been deemed insufficient (Stroud et al 2016) and is therefore not currently expected to play an important role in recovering populations. The study suggests that ensuring suitable breeding habitat and reducing predation pressure will be key interventions for conserving curlew. This supports RSPB’s view that testing the effectiveness of these managements is essential for informing curlew recovery.

    Recovering the curlew is hugely important to RSPB and we have led efforts in the UK to co-ordinate action for the curlew. We have initiated a Curlew Recovery Programme to step up our efforts for this species, with the main scientific research currently being a Trial Management Project (TMP). Improving the prospects of a species that, whilst declining, still breeds widely across the UK uplands and in some lowland areas, will require large-scale delivery of conservation measures. Before advocating for such delivery, we need a reasonable level of certainty that any measures deployed can be effective. This is where trial management projects, testing the delivery of conservation interventions on a suite of sites, can play a role, and RSPB is a leader in delivering such projects. The curlew TMP is testing whether the combined delivery of habitat management and predator control is effective in improving curlew nesting success and breeding abundance. It is being conducted in six study areas across the UK, each with a trial site where the targeted management is delivered, and a reference site managed on a ‘business as usual’ basis. Sites include a mix of reserves and private farmland and include both enclosed in-bye grassland and unenclosed moorland, representing the main habitat types used by curlew breeding in the UK. The total study area is 114km2, making this one of the largest and most ambitious field studies ever undertaken by the RSPB.

    The rationale for reducing predation pressure is that previous work (including Grant et al 1999) has identified low productivity as a major cause of the curlew decline - put simply, insufficient young are being raised to fledging. Predation of eggs and young has been identified as a major cause of this low productivity. The evidence therefore suggests that recovering curlew will require a reduction in predation pressure at breeding areas. However, will reducing predation alone be sufficient? To breed successfully, curlew need sufficient areas of suitable habitat in which to establish territories, conceal their nests and in which chicks can obtain sufficient invertebrate food to successfully fledge. Through research we can identify the mosaic of habitats that curlew associate with during the breeding season, but we need to test whether creating the right habitat delivers positive responses. We therefore think that the combination of delivering suitable habitat and reducing predation pressure will provide the best conditions for curlew to breed successfully and recover their populations, but need to test the effectiveness of this.

    Photo: Curlew, by Tom Marshall (

    Managing for curlews
    Given that curlew are widely dispersed across vast areas of the countryside, what is the best way to manage habitats and reduce predation pressure at the landscape scale? Habitat management in the TMP is being undertaken by famers, contractors and reserve staff, guided by knowledge of what curlew require and attempting to create this on trial sites, using standard methods such as rush control, mowing and grazing.

    There are various potential means for reducing predation pressure. Non-lethal methods include the removal of forestry plantations that can support predators, in the vicinity of curlew breeding areas, or the use of anti-predator fencing. Whilst removing such plantations would surely make an important contribution to reducing predation, it would probably be insufficient on its own and would take time to achieve over large areas, during which time curlew will continue to decline. Furthermore, national and devolved policies for woodland expansion are creating pressure to increase woodland, sometimes in important wader breeding areas, rather than remove it. Installing anti-predator fencing over the large breeding areas that curlew use across the uplands is simply not feasible.

    Lethal control of predators is therefore a pragmatic solution to reducing predation pressure. This is not a solution that RSPB accepts lightly (see this recent blog from our Conservation Director), but for conserving a rapidly-declining species such as the curlew, which is known to be adversely affected by predation, the case is a strong one. Which predators should be targeted and how much effort should be put into reducing their impact on curlew, without seeking to eradicate them or impact adversely on their own population status? Collating evidence from a range of sources on i) effects on breeding curlew, and ii) which species can be most effectively controlled through legal culling, highlights foxes and also hooded and carrion crows as priorities for control.

    Previous work has shown that predator control delivered at an intensity associated with grouse moor management can deliver positive results for curlew (Fletcher et al 2010). However, deploying full-time, year-round predator control across the UK range of the curlew, including areas outwith those subject to grouse moor management, is simply not affordable, and may not always be necessary. We are therefore testing whether a more affordable level of predator control, delivered specifically as a conservation tool for breeding waders, is effective for curlew. Predator control is delivered by experienced, professional contractors working at key times of year to reduce predation pressure on curlew. They use humane methods that comply with, and for some aspects exceed, legal requirements for controlling predators.

    The project began with a baseline year of monitoring curlew, predators and habitat on all sites. We have subsequently been delivering the targeted habitat and predator management on the trial sites. As the study is only part-way through, it is too early to present detailed results. But as an indication of the management delivered to date, 159 foxes and 928 carrion and hooded crows have been killed across the trial sites. Habitat management has been undertaken on 385 hectares, including rush cutting, grazing and mowing to reduce sward density. The most recent field season of monitoring responses on trial and reference sites has just been completed and interim analyses will begin in earnest, with further seasons of management planned.

    A key method for delivering land management with conservation as an aim is through agri-environment schemes. Advocating for new options, or wider deployment of current options, requires evidence of whether these are effective in achieving their objectives and are affordable. This forms the rationale for the management that we are testing and we hope that the results will inform the future roll-out of curlew conservation measures.

    We thank Natural England for supporting the curlew Trial Management Project through the Action for Birds in England (AfBiE) partnership.

    About the authors

    Dr David Douglas works at the RSPB Centre for Conservation Science and leads RSPB’s UK upland research programme. This includes work to inform the recovery of declining species and also addresses wider land use issues including forestry, grazing, moorland burning and onshore wind farms, examining the impacts of these on upland species, habitats and the wider environment.

    Dr Irena Tomankova works as a Conservation scientist at the RSPB Centre for Conservation Science, leading the delivery of science within the Curlew Trial Management Project.

    Sarah Sanders manages the curlew recovery programme at the RSPB, which involves co-ordinating and supporting colleagues from across the organisation to improve the conservation prospects for this species.