October, 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
  • Investing in agroforestry at Hutan Harapan

    Blog by Dr Tom Swinfield, Conservation Scientist, RSPB Centre for Conservation Science

    The high tide mark of oil palm expansion in the tropics is as yet unknown and still some way off it seems. Subsequent waves of deforestation recede to reveal transformed landscapes, riddled with new roads, planted palms emerging from the debris of the forests that had stood there for millions of years and even now struggle to regain their place. 

    These are the thoughts passing through my head as I got off the plane at Jambi airport in Central Sumatra, en route to Hutan Harapan (Hope Forest in Bahasa Indonesia; aka Harapan). I was on a two week trip to check in with colleagues working to develop agroforestry systems with small-holders who would otherwise establish oil palm plantations. The work is being done by the private company that manages Harapan, PT Restorasi Ekosistem Indonesia (trans. Ecosystem Restoration Indonesia; aka REKI), as part of a Darwin project, which you can read about in detail here.

    It’s always great to return to Indonesia. A combination of the smokey air, whizzing mopeds and ubiquitous building work makes it feel an extremely dynamic country and in the five years since I have been working there the two airport terminals I pass through regularly (Jakarta and Jambi) have been completely rebuilt, so they certainly seem to be making a lot of progress. Sadly the same is also true for deforestation, with Indonesia now losing forest faster than any other country. Despite all this change though much was the same as I remembered at Harapan basecamp and it was great to be greeted by the same friendly faces as I arrived.

    Restoring productivity in the Harapan rainforest

    Harapan is the first Ecosystem Restoration concession in Indonesia, which means that after four decades of selective (and sometimes not so selective logging) the government has stated an intention to restore it to a state of productivity, both in terms of biodiversity but also commercially. This is a huge challenge. Logged natural forests have few commercial resources and are highly threatened by conversion to agriculture, particularly oil palm. This recent investigative series by Mongabay and The Gecko Project goes into a lot of detail on the reasons why this is happening.

    At Harapan the main threat is forest clearance and subsequent claims by small holder farmers. It is extremely challenging to reclaim this land directly through legal action, so zones have been allocated within the concession where the priority is to build strong collaborative relationships with communities. These involve developing management agreements specifying that rubber agroforestry is planted instead of oil palm and forest clearance is ceased; in exchange REKI provides support by way of high quality planting stock. In theory this should set up a win-win situation, mainly through the diverse benefits of agroforestry.

    Photo: An area of pristine natural forest within Harapan which is the target for ecosystem restoration: forest that is both highly diverse and also commercially productive, by Tom Swinfield.


    Photo: The creeping edge of oil palm. Roads give access to small holders who clear land, hoping to improve their livelihoods by establishing oil palm, by Tom Swinfield.

    Agroforestry win-win

    In essence agroforestry, is the process of planting trees alongside or within agricultural crops, which has a number of benefits directly to the farmer and generates ecosystem services that are not produced in monoculture (one type of crop) systems. This video by MinuteEarth gives a good explanation; and Darwin project partners, the World Agroforestry Center, summarise the benefits of agroforests as follows, they:

    • Sequester carbon from the atmosphere
    • Bring up water and nutrients from depth
    • Provide a framework for above- and below-ground biodiversity to flourish
    • Build up soil organic matter and soil carbon
    • Diversify farm businesses and provide more opportunities for women
    • Increase per area productivity
    • Make agricultural landscapes more resilient

    If agroforestry is so great, why is it so rare in commercial farming?

    Indeed why? And how do you go about persuading a local farmer, who has seen so much of their local landscape converted to the highly lucrative and demanded oil palm, that they should spend the next 30 years or so tending an rubber agroforest instead? 


    Photo: Oil palm fruits waiting for collection at the side of the road, by Tom Swinfield.

    The answer to the first question is that farmers know that oil palm is easy to cultivate and highly profitable, making it a very safe bet. Access to markets is easy, particularly with oil palm mills springing up all over the place, and working with a single crop enables farmers to specialise with equipment and expertise so they can work quickly, reduce costs and maximising profit. However, monoculture systems are often highly reliant on chemical inputs, they are poor at buffering water, causing both floods and droughts, and lead to soil degradation through erosion and carbon emissions. These so called externalities are borne by society at large and not by the farmer. For example, plants are highly dependent upon nitrate based fertilisers produced by huge quantities of energy from atmospheric nitrogen through the Haber-Bosch process. The energy usually comes from the combustion of fossil fuels, which releases CO2 into the atmosphere and causes global warming. At present this cost to society is not properly accounted for in the price of fertilisers or crops which distorts the decisions that farmers and consumers make.

    REKI is addressing the second question through building positive relationships with farmers so that the direct benefits of agroforestry to them are believed and accepted. This is important as these are a little abstract: agroforestry systems buffer against changes in market prices through diversity, so that by selling several products, rather than just one, average household incomes are more stable; and agroforestry systems are, in fact, expected be more productive overall because the different crops, in essence, help each other (e.g. fertiliser applied to a fast growing, cash crop will lead to greater growth of timber trees). A small but growing agroforestry team has been set up in the Community Partnerships department, led by my esteemed colleague Munthe. It’s his job to gain the trust of farmers and convince them that agroforestry is the answer. He and his team are trialling four different agroforestry systems of increasing complexity to identify which of these offers the greatest productivity and provision of ecosystem services, without overworking farmers.


    Photo: Munthe (REKI) and Mangara (Burung Indonesia) preparing rubber seedlings for planting, by Tom Swinfield.

    So we joined Munthe on a two day trip around Harapan to see the progress that has been made in the past few months. There was a very nice atmosphere at Simpang Macan Luar, the first site we visited, where a group of farmers had prepared the land and were planting a simple agroforestry system of rubber and jackfruit under the hot morning sun as we arrived. They had agreed to plant a one hectare demonstration plot with the four different systems exactly as recommended by Munthe’s team and were establishing a further 30 hectares with rubber and fruit trees according to their own design.

    We continued on to the communities at Sungai Kelompang, Gelinding, Tanding, Kunangan Jaya and Kapas Tengah. Meeting with the farmers was real fun. I had met several before and they enthusiastically greeted me with “Halo lagi Pak” (hello again mister) and when they could, they generously offered us sweet black teas and coffees. Each had slightly different attitudes towards agroforestry and to our interest in their farms, as foreigners, but my overall feeling was that they were happy for the collaboration with REKI but were sceptical; I suppose rightly so given that this choice of what to plant will influence their livelihoods, possibly for the rest of their lives. 

    Photo: An area at Kunangan Jaya in the North of Harapan, which had been cleared and planned for oil palm development. Through the hard work of the Community Partnership team the area is now planned for agroforestry development instead, by Tom Swinfield.

    It is clearly difficult to influence farmers. Even though it may be easy enough to persuade them to plant rubber in place of oil palm, there is still a great deal of reluctance to abandon industry standards on tree spacings and break from monoculture to polyculture (many different types of crop). Despite most saying they had experience implementing agroforestry, their approach seemed to be rather opportunistic: planting fruit trees in spaces between the oil palm or rubber rather than implementing a system carefully designed to optimise yields.

    Planning for a more sustainable future

    After our trip, we spent a day debriefing: assessing the progress that has been made and what still needs to be done. The project targets include substantial areas planted with agroforestry by 2019 and some great progress has been made in terms of pledges of land by communities towards this. Munthe’s team has already made some great relationships with farmers, which is particularly impressive as many had previously been in a state of conflict with REKI. The hope now is that adoption will really take off once the demonstration plots begin to show how productive agroforestry really can be. The bigger challenge is to ensure that wider areas are planted with the systems that provide the biggest benefits to both parties. 

    As areas are planted REKI will work in partnership with farmers to collect baseline measurements: the costs of establishment and maintenance will be recorded so that profitability can be assessed; plant size will be measured so that growth rates can be tracked; and ecosystem function will be monitored through soil health (chemical composition, infiltration and decomposition) and biodiversity (birds and soil invertebrates). These surveys will be repeated at the end of the project and then periodically thereafter so we can build up much stronger evidence to demonstrate the value of agroforestry. Ultimately the aim of the project is to increase the uptake of agroforestry not just at Harapan but across Indonesia and these findings will be central to the case for why that should be.

  • Gough Team 63 - Settling into island life

    Blog by Kate Lawrence, Field Assistant International Species Recovery Unit

    Settling into island life

    After a nine day voyage on the SA Agulhas II, we finally arrived at Gough Island on a particularly wet and windy afternoon. Strong wind and low visibility meant the helicopters were unable to offload either passengers or cargo, so we anchored at The Glen for the night and enjoyed the dramatic scene before us.

    Photo courtesy of Jaimie Cleeland – View of The Glen


    Photo courtesy of Jaimie Cleeland – the sign at the helipad when you arrive at Gough Island


    The next day was stunning, so ‘takeover’ commenced with much enthusiasm. Needless to say, we were a little bit excited! The next two weeks were spent learning as much as we could from the Gough 62 team, visiting our work areas and getting a handle on the species monitoring we’ll be undertaking over the coming year. The rest of our Gough 63 team (met technicians, diesel mechanic, electrician, communications engineer and medic) were doing the same with their G62 counterparts (actually the G62 medic is our G63 medic for a few months, so he already knew the ropes).

    Photo courtesy of Kate Lawrence – Gough Team 63 on the red carpet

    Meanwhile, the base was re-stocked, re-fuelled, cargo moved in both directions and maintenance undertaken.

    Highlights included the round island Tristan albatross chick count – the chicks are big, beautiful and still a bit fluffy, and the scenery breathtaking.

    Photo courtesy of Jaimie Cleeland – Tristan Albatross Chick


    Photo courtesy of Kate Lawrence – The view of Hags Tooth on the round island Tristan Albatross count.

    Photo courtesy of Jaimie Cleeland – Kate in front of Hags Tooth


    Photo courtesy of Kate Lawrence – Fabrice and Jaimie searching for the Atlantic Yellow-nosed Albatross nests

    Another important job was familiarisation with the sagina zones, where we’ll be abseiling off the cliffs and scrambling around the scramble zones to eradicate this invasive weed (Sagina procumbens). We had some great training both off and on-island and we’re feeling like we can make a positive contribution to this challenge.

    Photo courtesy of ZMilner – Jaimie and Kate on the hunt for Sagina in the Snoekgat scramble zone


    Getting anywhere on this island is strenuous. Tracks in the lowlands are usually difficult to distinguish amongst the dense Jurassic Park-esque bog ferns and bracken, not to mention muddy, with surprise deeper mud holes to trip you up. However, after going off-track and struggling to make headway though the same ferns, brackens and Phylica arborea trees (lovely to look at; difficult to get through their low, tangled branches) the tracks seem like super-highways. Up higher the walking sometimes gets a bit easier. But even on top of the hills the ground and vegetation holds onto an amazing amount of water and we find ourselves squelching through mud and bogs. When the cushiony ground cover of mossy vegetation is dry-ish it can be like bouncing down a trampoline going downhill, but takes about four times as much energy for each spongy step when going uphill. Abseiling in the sagina zones involves first finding our anchors and then rigging our ropes amongst the dense Spartina arundinacea (apparently a tussock grass but I would argue more like a skinny bamboo well over head height – and if you’re not careful the broken stalks poke you in the eyes and up the nose). I’m sure we will curse the vegetation and the mud many times, but at the same time we love it. This island is a wild and extraordinary place, and we are privileged to be here.

    Photo courtesy of Kate Lawrence – Fabrice and Jaimie on the hunt for Sagina on the sea cliffs

    Now it’s our turn

    On September 26 the island was officially handed over to the Gough 63 team. On October 2 we waved goodbye to the ship.

    Photo courtesy of Jaimie Cleeland – The SA Aghulas II standing off Gough Island during the takeover operations


    Photo courtesy of Kate Lawrence - The SA Aghulas II departs


    Photo courtesy of Kate Lawrence - View of Gough Island base from Tafel Koppie during the takeover operations

    Photo courtesy of Kate Lawrence – Albatross on Tafelkoppe

    Rather than feeling a bit apprehensive, as I expected, I relished the idea of having the island to ourselves. After months of preparation, training and travel, it was wonderful to finally unpack properly and really settle in.

    Since then we have been into our work: monitoring Atlantic yellow-nosed albatrosses, sooty albatrosses, Tristan albatross chicks, southern giant petrels, rockhopper penguins, macgillivray’s prions, Gough buntings and Gough moorhens, and spraying sagina.

    Photo courtesy of Jaimie Cleeland – Sooty Albatross sitting on a cliff edge

    Photo courtesy of Jaimie Cleeland – Preening Atlantic Yellow-nosed Albatross

    Photo courtesy of Jaimie Cleeland – Snoozing Atlantic Yellow-nosed Albatross

    Photo courtesy of Jaimie Cleeland – The Rockhopper Penguins have returned to Gough Island and are preparing to incubate eggs

    Photo courtesy of Kate Lawrence – Incubating Rockhopper Penguin

    Photo courtesy of Jaimie Cleeland – Tristan Albatross Chick

    Photo courtesy of Jaimie Cleeland  - Jaimie taking a break after completing the round island Tristan albatross survey

    Photo courtesy of Kate Lawrence – Gough Team 63 getting to know the island.

    Meanwhile we’ve also been getting into the routines of base life: the 10 of us take it in turns to cook dinner, Friday nights are ‘take-away’ dinner at the bar, Saturday nights are a three course meal and on Monday mornings we are allocated areas of the base to clean. We don’t have meetings, we have ‘yarns’ around the dinner table. We’ve all helped sort out the food store, to get a handle on what we have and what we don’t have much of. The food list is still being finalised but it’s clear we have plenty of meat, brussels sprouts, corn flakes, jelly and ice cream and not much tinned tomato or spinach (note all fruit and vegetables are frozen or tinned – nothing fresh is allowed on the island for biosecurity reasons). Cheese will be rationed. Chocolate, juice and chips (Aussie for crisps) have been divided up equally amongst us to ration individually as we wish (34 blocks, 12 litres and 27 packets each, respectively). The lack of fresh fruit and vegetables and limited ingredients has not stifled the team’s cooking ability; we’ve had some very tasty meals, and Fabrice has already come up with a delicious soup recipe to use up brussels sprouts!

    All in all, it’s been a busy but wonderful few weeks. We’re here with a great group of people who will make all the difference to our time on the island and we’re looking forward to all that Gough has in store for us!




    The Gough Island Restoration Programme is being carried out by the RSPB in partnership with Tristan da Cunha, BirdLife 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



  • A trio of climate change papers hit the press

    Blog by Dr Richard Bradbury, Head of Environmental and Research section, RSPB Centre for Conservation Science

    How vulnerable are species to extremes in weather? This is an important question, given that increases in extreme weather are among the more obvious manifestations of climate change.

    Previous research (see here and here) has shown that butterflies are sensitive to extreme weather, so we examined sensitivity of butterfly population dynamics to variation in weather conditions across their European geographic ranges. The resulting paper is the first from the PhD of our student Simon Mills, with his great team of supervisors at Sheffield and Reading Universities. Simon was able to make use of the fantastic long-term butterfly data-sets that have been collected by a veritable army of volunteers across Europe – his study spanned 35 years of data for 12 species, from over 900 sites, ranging from Finland to Spain.

    By constructing population growth rate models that included all these data, Simon could examine how sensitivity to temperature and precipitation varied with life-stage and with location in a species’ range, controlling for strong density dependence effects.

    We found that range edge populations were more sensitive to weather variation than those in the centre of species ranges, that precipitation events were as important as temperature events and that there were different sensitivities to extreme weather events at different times in the butterfly life cycle. This strongly suggests that we should expect to see geographic variation in the response to climate changes among different populations of the same species – perhaps not surprisingly, populations at the range edge will be most sensitive, so that is where we might expect to see the most rapid changes.

    How do we use information like this to assess risk to species from climate change?

    Getting our heads around climate risk is a focus for another of our PhD students, Chris Wheatley. His first PhD paper, again with his other supervisors – this time from York University and the BTO, tried to make sense of the slightly bewildering (at least to me!) array of methods that have been proposed to assess climate change risk to species. These different methods have arisen out of a range of contexts – some, for instance, in data-rich situations (eg for UK butterflies and birds) where lots is known about species trends, and others in more data-poor situations, where less is known about species trends. The big question is whether they are all equally valid approaches, in all situations. 

    Photo: Brimstone – one of the species found to be more sensitive to extremes of weather at its range edges.

    We compared 12 different methods, to see whether they consistently assign species to the same risk categories. Crucially, we also checked whether any of the methods actually perform well at identifying climate-threatened species, using historical data for British birds and butterflies to assign risks and using more recent data for validation. Again, the availability of such datasets is fantastic testament to all those volunteers who so diligently collect these data year-on-year. 

    Chris found that the different vulnerability assessment methods are definitely not consistent with one another when considering the same species, so the different methods cannot be used interchangeably. The results of our validation provide some more support for trend-based rather than purely trait-based approaches, although further validation will be required as data become available.

    So, with this knowledge, we were then given an interesting challenge from Natural England – to assess the climate risk to as many English species as we could. This took a massive effort, ably led by our friends at BTO, but involving many others – from University partners to those in the species societies who curate the data.

    Following the results above, we used risk assessment methods that incorporated species trends and assessed over 3000 plants and animals.  Species were selected for their occurrence in England, the primary focus of the study, but climate change impacts were assessed across Great Britain, to widen their geographical relevance.

    These species vary greatly how much data we have on them, so we employed two approaches – for all species, we used a basic risk assessment that compared projected future changes in potential range with recently observed changes. For a sub-set of 402 better studied species, we were able to conduct a more comprehensive assessment, including potentially confounding and exacerbating factors such as dispersal ability and habitat availability.

    The basic assessment classified 21% of the 3000+ species at high risk and 6% at medium risk of range loss under a B1 climate change scenario. More species were classified as having a medium (16%) or high (38%) opportunity to potentially expand their distribution.  The more comprehensive assessment produced slightly more pessimistic results, classifying 35% of the 402 species at risk of range loss, while 42% may expand their range extent – but the overall balance is still for more species to benefit than lose out, in an English context.  Whilst the overall pattern was clear, confidence was generally low for individual species, with the exception of well-studied groups such as birds.

    Photo: The balance of risk and opportunity varied between taxonomic groups and habitats, with upland habitats and bryophytes and vascular plants containing the greatest proportion of species at risk from climate change.

    This is where it is important to link back to Simon’s study. England has a significant proportion of species at their poleward range limit; the balance of risks and opportunities from climate change may be different elsewhere. In addition, it’s important to point out that an assessment at the scale of England needs to be considered in the light of the wider population of these species. Some, like Dartford Warbler are projected to do well in England under climate change, and indeed are already doing so, but these increases at the poleward edge of their range could be offset by declines further south (see previous blogs here, here and here. This is why it makes it more important than ever to make sure we have a robust system of reserves and protected areas in which these species can settle and flourish as they move north.