Saving Species

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
  • Tracking Bristol's starlings: an update

    Blog post by Vivien Hartwell, Research Assistant, RSPB Centre for Conservation Science.

    Starlings are one of the UK's fastest declining birds. And we want to know why.

    Back in May we started a new and innovative project in Bristol that will hopefully shed light on where juvenile starlings move to after fledging. 

    The aim is to find out where they go, the habitats they use and what threats they face as they disperse away from their nests.

    So how is the project going, and what have we found so far?

    Urban starling. Image by Ben Andrew (rspb-images.com)

    Catching starlings

    After a month of trying across four gardens in Bishopston, Easton, Henleaze and Southmead we successfully caught 60 starlings.

    These were a mix of adults and juveniles. Of these we were able to carefully place radio tags and colour rings onto 25 juveniles, while another 14 which just had colour rings fitted.

    Many adults were caught showing evidence of nesting behaviour and as June went on more were showing signs that they had completed breeding and were starting to moult their feathers.

    The birds were mainly caught using mist nets and potter traps (box traps which a bird walks into, before a door closes behind it) and all users were permitted by the British Trust for Ornithology to use them. All of the birds caught looked healthy.

    Juvenile starling with colour ring. Photo by David Buckingham (rspb.org.uk)

    Juvenile starling with colour ring

    What's next?

    Now the hard part starts trying to find where the starlings have gone. For the first month after fledging many of the birds we tracked stayed within 4kms of where they were caught. Now they appear to have moved to new areas with sightings of the birds becoming rarer.

    Many sightings so far have been in gardens, with the starlings using feeders filled with meal worms and suet balls, and also drinking and bathing in the bird baths.

    Over the coming month I will be travelling around Bristol trying to find the tagged individuals using traditional tracking technology and comparing it to the newly designed tracking boxes the RSPB have designed.

    I will use both side by side to try to find the birds and to see how the new technology compares to the traditional methods. We hope that in future these new tracking boxes can be given to more members of the public to help us find birds which disperse rapidly, like starlings.

    We currently have these boxes in gardens in northern Bristol and with volunteers that are using them as they travel around the city.

    Juvenile starling fitted with satellite tag. Photo by David Buckingham (rspb.org.uk)

    Juvenile starling fitted with satellite tag. The tags weigh just two per cent of a starlings total weight.

    Did you see us on BBC Springwatch?

    In June, the BBC Springwatch cameras came to feature the project on their show. We were very lucky and managed to find one of the radio tagged birds within 15 minutes of looking! The starling was very obliging and stayed in a collection of gardens in the city which we were able to access to look for it.

    As soon as the filming was finished the bird and the group it was with moved off and the radio tracking equipment no longer picked up the bird’s presence in the area. The bird was found again on several occasions after this but now appears to have moved elsewhere.

    Vivien Hartwell with BBC Springwatch presenter Patrick Aryee. (RSPB)

    How can you help

    This is where we need you! Any sightings of the colour ringed or tagged birds are valuable to tell us where they have gone to. Extra details letting us know where they were seen and what they were doing is equally as valuable to help build up a picture of their behaviour around the city.

    If you see a colour ringed or tagged bird in Bristol, please email vivien.hartwell@rspb.org.uk

  • The UK Biodiversity Indicators 2018 part 3: Is there any cause for hope?

    The latest annual update of the UK’s official biodiversity indicators were recently published. This is the final blog post in our three-part series on these indicators. The first blog post explained what the indicators are, the second what they show and in this final blog, Mark Eaton, Principal Conservation Scientist, asks if there is any cause for hope:

    So, in short, these indicators show us that for a large part, the state of the UK’s nature is continuing to decline. But that’s not to say there aren’t some successes to celebrate, such as the increase in bat populations, largely in response to protective legislation.

    And when we look at the ‘pressure’ indicators we can see some (slow) progress in battling adverse impacts. As before, we do need to remember that these measures demonstrate progress, not success – often they tell a story of slow progress, gradual improvements, with a long way to go before we can say ‘job done’.

    Black guillemot nesting in harbour wall. Image by Louise Greenhorn (rspb-images.com)

    There have been some improvements in air pollution (indicator B5a: Air pollution), as measured by the land area affected by acidification and excess nitrogen loads – but the figures are still worrying with, for example, nitrogen deposition exceeding critical load in 62% of the area deemed to be sensitive to this pollution.

    The proportion of fish stocks (indicator B2: Sustainable fisheries) that are known to be being fished at or below sustainable levels has increased – good news – but is still only just over half (53%).

    And whilst there has been a long-term increase in the area of protected area in the UK (C1: Protected areas), only half (51%) of our Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) and Areas of Special Scientific Interest (ASSIs) are deemed to be in favourable condition.

    Given the ongoing loss of nature and the continuing pressures that these indicators portray, my eye is drawn to very last indicator in the suite, E2: Expenditure on UK and international biodiversity.

    Tanner beetle. Image by Ben Andrew (rspbn-images.com)

    With much of our nature already lost – remember, the Biodiversity Intactness Index that we featured in the State of Nature 2016 report showed the UK to be amongst the world’s most nature-depleted countries – and some still in decline, as shown by this indicator release, the public are showing their support for nature conservation; spending by non-governmental organisations with a focus on biodiversity and nature conservation has increased by 20% over the last five years, thanks to the help of their supporters.

    They are also stepping up by volunteering – the measure of volunteering (A2), shows that the time donated to assist conservation, has increased by 40% since 2000.

    However, it is depressing to note that these increases have not been matched by governmental commitment; indeed, real-term spending on biodiversity by the public sector has fallen by 17% over the last five years, and that this is just 0.022% of the UK’s GDP.

    Four-spotted chaser. Image by Paula Baker (rspb-images.com)

    What can we do?

    Although the Biodiversity Indicators have been developed to track progress across the UK as a whole, biodiversity policy is a devolved responsibility and these indicators are dependent on a wide variety of data from across all four countries.

    England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have separate biodiversity or environment strategies, as well as distinct and unique geographical and ecological contexts, and trends and pressures will be different in each country. What the indicators do provide, however, is a useful tool for summarising and communicating a broad overview of trends across the UK.

    As Martin Harper pointed out in his blog last month, these indicators should serve as a reminder that we are failing in our efforts to halt the loss of wildlife.

    Otter. Image by Louise Greenhorn (rspb-images.com)

    If we are to stand any chance of reversing these trends we need legally binding targets for recovery of our nature, soil, water and air in all four countries of the UK, and mechanisms to ensure that they are delivered and that each of the governments in the UK can be held to account on achieving them.

    In England this should be delivered via the recently promised Westminster Environment Bill, and we look forward to seeing the details of the Bill later this year.

    In Wales there is already a law – the Well-being of Future Generation (Wales) Act – which requires the Welsh Government to set milestones to drive natures recovery. But despite this law being passed three years ago, we are still waiting for the milestones to be set, and it is unclear how much power these will have to drive the action that is needed.

    Scotland and Northern Ireland now also need to come forward with their own proposals for strong legislation and robust targets, in order to ensure that we have effective measures in place across the UK.

  • The UK Biodiversity Indicators 2018 part 2: what does this year’s indicator update tell us?

    The latest annual update of the UK’s official biodiversity indicators were recently published. In the second of a three-part blog series, Mark Eaton, Principal Conservation Scientist, explains what this year’s update tells us:

    In the first blog post, I explained what the indicators are. Now, it's time to talk about what they show.

    Overall, this report presents 43 measures of change over the long-term (over the definition of ‘long-term’ varies between measures), and 40 over the short-term. Each measured is assessed as improving, little or no overall change, or deteriorating, with a few said to have insufficient data to enable an assessment to be made.

    Arable flowers. Image by Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)

    It should be borne in mind that these are not targets, and an improving measure does not mean that all is well with the variable being measured.

    For example, while the bat indicator (C8) shows a welcome increase over both the long-term (since 1999) and short-term (since 2011), there is evidence to suggest that this is a partial recovery from decades of bat decline prior to the start of the indicator period, and bat numbers may still be below previous levels.

    In all, 23 of the long-term measures are increasing, 10 deteriorating, and 16 of the short-term assessments are increasing and nine deteriorating. So, on the face of it, is this good news – more going up than down? To be honest, not really – a more nuanced approach is needed to understand what these indicators tell us.

    The heart of the matter

    To my mind, the most important statistics are those found grouped under CBD strategic goal C, “Improve the status of biodiversity by safeguarding ecosystems, species and genetic diversity”. These state indicators tell us the fundamental details of how the UK’s biodiversity is faring. Regardless of what the other indicators measuring the pressures upon our biodiversity, and the responses being made to help that biodiversity, tell us, if the ‘state’ indicators are bad news then those pressures are too great, and those responses insufficient.

    Whilst the aim is for there to ultimately be nine indicators for goal C, only seven are available at present, with those for habitat connectivity and plants of the wider countryside still under development. One of the existing seven indicators, C9: genetic resources for food and agriculture, actually has six measures, five of which are related to populations of livestock rare breeds, the other to the Millennium Seed Bank. If you consider that each C9 measure has both a long- and short-term assessment, which means that 12 of the total of 83 assessments published last week are from this indicator alone.

    Red squirrel. Image by Ben Andrew (rspb-images.com)

    Of these, nine are increasing, which of course good news and speaks of good progress towards Aichi target 13, relating to the genetic diversity of cultivated plants and farmed/domesticated animals. But there’ll be no dancing in the streets of Sandy for that, as trends in Toggenburg goats and Gloucestershire Old Spot pigs have no relation to what is happening to the UK’s nature.

    This also highlights the irrelevance of the headline statistics of the overall proportion of the measures in the three (increasing/little or no change/deteriorating) categories, as the number of measures for each subject area varies considerably – there’s far too much prominence for livestock trends, in my opinion.

    The nine increasing measures for indicator C9 represent nearly a quarter of all the positive assessments in this year’s report!

    Birds

    Rather, if we focus on the key measures of how the UK’s nature is doing, we see that the indicator for farmland birds is less than half its 1970 starting value, and has continued to decline in the short term, the woodland bird indicator is down by 23% since 1970, although stable in the short-term, and although the seabird indicator was not updated or formally assessed in 2018 due to technical reasons, it is clearly in decline, down by 21% in 30 years.

    Whilst the wintering waterbird indicator is still well above its 1975 start point courtesy of a fantastic rise through the 1970s, 80s and 90s, that too is now in a downward slide, reaching its lowest level for over 25 years. Only the indicator of breeding waterbirds has shown stability, and even that has a worrying hint of a downturn.

    Puffin with sandeels in bill. Image by Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)

    Other species

    Other species groups are also struggling - the index of habitat specialist butterflies has fallen by a staggering 77% since 1976, and that for those of the wider countryside by 46% over the same period. An indicator of the status of priority species, which reports on trends in species identified as a conservation priority by the statutory conservation agencies of any of the UK’s four nations, shows ongoing declines in abundance although the indicator showing trends in occurrence has remained stable.

    Come back tomorrow for the final part, where, despite the declines, I ask if there is any hope.