July, 2015

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.


Read about our Investigations team, working hard to keep our birds and wildlife safe
  • Come and see brilliant bee-eaters

    During the week of 15th June, the RSPB received one of those calls you don’t often forget! Employees at the Hanson Aggregates Quarry at Lower Gelt, near Brampton in Cumbria, had been puzzled by the appearance of several exotic-looking birds that had suddenly appeared in the quarry. Contact was made with RSPB via the Nature After Minerals project and two local RSPB staff were dispatched on a fact-finding mission!

    This is what they found!

    One of six bee-eaters in the quarry (Mark Thomas RSPB)

    Amazingly, a total of six bee-eaters were seen, hawking over the small sand quarry and courtship-feeding on the perimeter fence. Despite the fact that bee-eaters have bred in the UK on three occasions from 2002, this is still a very rare breeding bird and one needing full protection from the actions of egg collectors and unnecessary disturbance. The phone lines between the RSPB regional office in Newcastle and The Lodge were red-hot and plans were drawn up and rapidly actioned. The RSPB is proud to be have been involved in the previous breeding attempts and to be assisting this species with its colonisation of the UK. Talks with Hanson and the landowner, assisted by Cumbria Police, were very productive and protection wardening began almost immediately. Observations showed that two pairs of birds were nest-building and that the extra individuals were non-breeding ‘helpers’! Members of the local birding community were contacted and informed of the presence of the birds and brought on-board as very willing volunteers! Beyond the welfare of the birds always coming first, the RSPB’s aim in these situations is to attempt to provide a public viewing scheme, so spectacular birds can be enjoyed by as many people as possible. You can listen to a recent podcast featuring the work of the RSPB in protecting rare breeding birds, prepared by Charlie Moores as part of the Talking Naturally series. It was clear that Hanson and the landowner shared that belief and the location was absolutely perfect, with ample parking and good observation points.

    The viewpoint gives great views of the birds (Mark Thomas RSPB)

    We are pleased to announce that the viewing scheme is now operational and the location can be found on the map below. Please follow all on-site instructions and under no circumstances enter the active quarry. The site is open from 8 am until 8 pm daily, with a number of RSPB staff and quality telescopes on hand to assist you with your visit. There is a £5 parking fee at the land owners request. 

    We hope you enjoy your visit!

    For general enquiries, contact Mark Thomas on 01767 680551 For media enquiries, contact Chris Collett on 0191 233 4300

  • Some good news from the front


    During the autumn of 2000, which seems a long time ago, I made a visit with a colleague to Cyprus following reports of extensive illegal trapping of migrant birds using mist nets and electronic tape lures.  Cyprus provides a key staging post for millions of migratory birds, and has important resident populations of birds.  Due to its location in the eastern Mediterranean, a number of important migration flyways converge over Cyprus, and millions of birds use the island as a crucial stopover for feeding and resting.  Many of Europe’s migrant birds are in trouble and breeding populations of long-distance, trans-Sharan migrant birds have declined sharply since the 1970’s.  The RSPB ‘Birds without Borders’ programme is bringing BirdLife partners to work together and develop initiatives that will tackle the problems faced by migratory birds.

    Stonechat caught on a limestick


    Bird trapping using twigs coated in a sticky substance called ‘lime’ was a traditional culinary activity in Cyprus and at one time caught birds were probably an important food source.  However, all forms of bird trapping were made illegal in 1974.  The term ‘ambelopoulia’ is used to describe the migrants birds caught for consumption and blackcap has been the traditional favourite with birds migrating south in autumn carrying high reserves of fat for the arduous journey ahead. 

    Jar of ambelopoulia

    However, our visit showed that whilst limesticks were still widely used, it was the proliferation of the illegal use of mist nets with electronic calling devices which was breathtakingly blatant across large areas at the south east corner of the island.  This was industrial bird trapping and during the autumn season professional bird trappers were making substantial sums of money trapping birds for the restaurant trade and other retail outlets.  In many places nets were obvious and visible near main roads and in back gardens.  Several large houses had securely-fenced grounds containing numerous set nets.  A significant illegal trapping area was on the Cape Pyla headland, a natural migration route, which formed part of the Eastern Sovereign Base Area (SBA).  The two Sovereign Base Areas on Cyprus are important strategic military locations for the UK and are managed by the MOD.


    Here the trappers had gone to huge trouble to plant and irrigate several acres with a fast-growing, non-native acacia.  Several diesel pumps thudded away throughout the day illegally pumping up groundwater which was dispersed into miles of black plastic piping to irrigate the area.  I also got to see the trappers at first hand and very early in the morning filmed two of them checking a net ride and casually cutting the throats of birds caught in the mist nets before tossing them into a bucket.  All rather grim.  The footage was passed to the authorities who were able to prosecute one of the men.

    Trapper filmed illegally catching migrants with a mist net during my first visit in 2000

    Significantly, this initial visit set the wheels in motion for a whole series of events.  In 2001, a report was submitted by two Cyprus Ornithological Groups and BirdLife International to the Bern Convention.  The Bern Convention Standing Committee made a number of recommendations to the UK and Cypriot authorities.  This included the clear need for increased enforcement action.  Encouragingly, 2001 saw a strong response by the SBA authorities with the large scale seizure and destruction of mist nets and other trapping equipment from the SBA.  The Cypriot authorities also became much more active in enforcement, their thoughts no doubts focussed by their forthcoming accession to the EU in 2004.

    In 2002, it was decided to start a survey to try to get some assessment of the levels of illegal bird trapping in the two main trapping areas in SE Cyprus.  Two staff were employed by BirdLife International and I worked with them to try to develop the survey methodology.  There were a number of problems.  Firstly, there were no other real examples of this type of survey work of an illegal activity.  Furthermore, health and safety consideration meant it was not possible to go out very early in the morning when the mists nets were in place as the trappers would be present and there was a clear risk of violence towards the surveyors.

    So a survey method was developed to visit a number of randomly selected one kilometre squares and assess the levels of trapping activity.  Most of the nets were taken down during the day so more subtle signs of activity included the tell-tale  presence of feathers and blood spots in the trapping rides where birds had been caught and killed.  Encouragingly there seemed to have been a huge reduction in the levels of illegal trapping.  The significant recent enforcement action by the UK and Cypriot authorities was no doubt part of the reason for this.  This reduction no doubt saved the lives of millions of migrant birds passing across Cyprus.

    With the formation of BirdLife Cyprus in 2003 (BLC), this impressive monitoring work to assess trapping activity has continued during every autumn trapping season until the current day.  There has been additional survey work done during some spring and winter periods when trapping of migrants and winter visitors also takes place.  Initially the level of trapping, though still unacceptable, at least stayed around the reduced 2002 level for a number of years.

    Blackcap in an illegally set mist net

    Unfortunately, the level of trapping has increased in recent years.  Ultimately, this is a supply and demand type of crime.  With a plate of dozen ambelopoulia in a restaurant costing 60 Euros or more, this provides the lucrative incentive for the trappers to continue.  All the restaurant trade is outside the SBA.  Back in 2002, some nine restaurants serving ambelopoulia were raided by the Cypriot Authorities.  This whole issue is very political and it seems this action did not go down very well with influential figures within the hunting and 'ambelopoulia eating' community.  Since that time there appears to have been very little effort to tackle the root cause of the problem.  Whilst the demand remains it seems trappers will continue to risk the chances of being caught and prosecuted for the high financial rewards available. 

    Cape Pyla within the SBA has remained a key trapping hotspot.  Cutting down the large areas of non-native acacia seems an obvious action to take but there are both financial and political considerations for the UK authorities to consider and the potential reactions of some Cypriot residents who regard this illegal activity as part of their ‘livelihood’.  Whilst the SBA authorities have continued to commit resources to enforcement work, the increasing level of trapping activity with the last few years has understandably prompted increased pressure by BirdLife Cyprus and RSPB on the UK government.

    With the increased trend of illegal trapping, in recent years the survey methodology has come under more scrutiny.  Consequently, on Tuesday this week, some ten years since my last visit in 2005, I attended a workshop at Akrotiri, inside the Western SBA, to discuss the validity of the survey work and whether any improvements could be made.  In addition to representatives from the SBA, the MOD, NGOs and Cypriot Police we were very fortunate to have the presence of two independent experts from the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO).  The BTO is an independent charitable research institute combining professional and citizen science aimed at using evidence of change in wildlife populations, particularly birds, to inform the public, opinion-formers and environmental policy.  With their impressive track record in research and surveying, I confess I was slightly apprehensive about their detailed scrutiny of the survey methods we had been forced to put together at fairly short notice way back in 2002.

    Encouragingly, the methodology itself seemed to have stood the test of time pretty well as a means to assess the trends in the level of trapping.  The BTO will provide further feedback in due course with some suggested tweaks to improve the assessment of the levels of trapping within the SBA. Translating levels of trapping activity into the number of birds actually being caught is difficult.  But there seems little doubt that, at the very least, some hundreds of thousands of birds continue to be illegally trapped and I think all were agreed there is much more work to be done.

    Removal of non-native acacia used by the trappers on Cape Pyla


    It is hoped acacia clearance like this like will continue within the SBA

    Without doubt the most encouraging news was that the MOD was committing significant resources to the removal of some of the acacia.  On the Wednesday, I returned with a small party to one of the worst trapping areas on the notorious Cape Pyla.  In the heat of the day around a dozen contractors were engaged with heavy duty machinery in removing and chipping a large area of acacia.  One of the fieldworkers for BLC, who had been doing the arduous survey work for the last few years, was delighted to see some the most regularly abused trapping rides now being laid bare by the contractors.  Now at last the native vegetation would have the chance to recover and the opportunity to illegally trap thousands of migrants would be removed.

    Very recently it was announced that the SBA have put forward Cape Pyla as a potential Special Area of Conservation (SAC).  I understand there are some wonderful displays of spring flowers.   If this is implemented it will provide a further incentive for removal of the non-native acacia.  So it is to be hoped the MOD will continue with a determined effort to reduce the opportunities for the trappers and restore the environmental value of this area of the coastline.  At the same time, outside the SBA, it appears that an increased political will is desperately needed in the Cypriot Republic to tackle the demand for ambelopoulia.  Only then does it seem that millions of migrants will be free to cross this sunny island unmolested.