Mark Avery's blog

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.

Mark Avery's blog

I'm the RSPB's Conservation Director. My aim with this blog will be to comment on matters of conservation importance and give you a few insights into the RSPB's conservation work - there's plenty to write about!
  • Countdown - 2, ours?

    The UK Overseas Territories are a funny collection of places, mostly islands, which speak volumes about the UK's colonial past. 

    We will go to war to protect their sovereignty but will we protect their wildlife? 

    The UKOTs are populated by 240,000 British nationals and are visited by over 1.6 million UK citizens every year and yet are mostly overlooked in Whitehall.  Defra is the department responsible for the biodiversity of the UKOTs, yet does not have a single full-time member of staff member working on this complex area of British biodiversity.

    The UK Overseas Territories (UKOTs) are of outstanding importance for global biodiversity, home to iconic habitats and species, including over a third of the world’s breeding albatross population and arguably the most important seabird island in the world (Gough island). This biodiversity is highly threatened: there are now 74 critically endangered species in the UKOTs.  Over 75% of the globally threatened species for which the UK is responsible are found on these small islands, including over 90% of the UK’s globally threatened bird species.  With 33 bird species under threat of extinction, the UKOTs have more bird species of global conservation concern than the entire European continent.

    Extinctions are an ongoing threat. The last global extinction in the UKOTs occurred as recently as 2004 (the St. Helena Olive), a fate which would have been unthinkable had the last specimens of the species occurred on an offshore Scottish island. The Gough bunting is predicted to go extinct within 40 years without conservation intervention. If the UK is to have a hope of meeting its 2020 biodiversity commitments, it will have to step up its responsibility towards the UKOTs and treat them as a true priority. Only 6 of the 33 globally threatened bird species in the UKOTs currently have action plans in place.

    The tiny human populations of many of the UKOTs are unable to respond to the scale of action required. Support and assistance is required, but the UKOTs fall between the gaps: due to their status as UK Territory, they are ineligible for support from most international funding sources (e.g. Global Environment Facility), but they are also unable to access much UK funding (e.g. Heritage Lottery Fund) due to their location.

    Our two advocacy asks of Defra are to:
    • conduct a UKOTs Disappearing Species Assessment of the state of the c.140 critically endangered and endangered UKOT species. (At present, no priorities for action have been identified and the status of many of the UKOTs’ globally threatened species is unknown).
    • establish a UK Overseas Territories Biodiversity Unit within Defra to coordinate HMG work on the issue- can’t be done ‘off the side of the desk’.

  • Countdown - 3, buying land

    Much of this blog has been about what government should or should not do.  But thank heavens there are plenty of things that nature conservationists can do without bringing politicians into it at all.  And perhaps top of the pile is buying and managing land.

    I can remember when there used to be occasional tensions within the RSPB between those who wanted to save nature through policy change and those who wanted to do it through land management.  One of my achievements, such as it is, in nearly 13 years of being the RSPB's Conservation Director is to calm down those tensions and get people behind the idea that we need both - why tie one hand behind your back when you need six hands to make much progress anyway?

    Much of this blog has dealt with public policy but much of my working life has been given over to spending millions of pounds of the RSPB's money on fantastic nature reserves.  The first of these that we added under my Directorship was Dingle Marshes (still a great place) and I've never looked back since. 

    We've been adding to our land holdings in the Flow Country - where I first worked for the RSPB in 1986, when we had no land up there at all.  Our Forsinard nature reserve is the largest of all our nature reserves now - that's a lot of growth in a mere 25 years. 

    I like to think of our 200+ nature reserves as a rather large family of teenagers.  Why is that?  Because hardly any of them is fully formed and grown up.  But they have lots of potential. 

    It is in the nature of land purchase that you rarely have the opportunity to buy all of, or just, the land that would make the perfect nature reserve at the start.  There's often that important bit of land (for access, or to allow proper control of water levels, or simply the 'best' bit) that isn't included in the original deal.  And it's also in the nature of things that you rarely know when the remainder will be available for purchase.  So I regard many RSPB nature reserves as unfinished - wonderful as they are, they are mostly unfinished.

    But don't they do a great job?  Nature reserves have played a big role in the recovery of populations of marsh harrier, bearded tit, bittern, avocet (of course!), corncrakes, roseate terns and actually a whole range of other birds and, very importantly, not just for birds.  And over recent years, and into the future, RSPB nature reserves will also to do a good job for lapwings, redshanks, snipe, black grouse, choughs, cranes and who knows what other bird species?  25 years ago it would have only been the more visionary who would have seen that so many birds of the wider countryside would be increasingly concentrated in nature reserves.

    Check out previous blogs on our nature reserves in general (here, here ) or some in particular (Nene Washes, Saltholme, Islay, Geltsdale and Otmoor).

    Which is your favourite RSPB nature reserve - and why?

    Did I mention there is a book of the blog?  It even has tips about how to blog so you could start yourself.

  • Countdown - 4, hen harriers

    They are just one species of bird, and their numbers in the UK have increased a bit over the last couple of decades, but still the hen harrier's plight is resonant of a distant age when nature was persecuted freely.

    I believe, and the RSPB believes, that this is a species which is ruthlessly killed by some of those involved with grouse shooting.  The evidence for this comes from science, rumour, film evidence, a few court cases and the more honest members of the shooting fraternity.  And this regular killing is of course totally illegal.

    Things have got worse over recent years - by which I mean that the degree of honesty on this subject has decreased in the 'sporting' press and the organisations which claim to represent 'shooting folk'.  It was not so long ago that honest men from the shooting community accepted that hen harrier persecution was common and unacceptable - some even wrote scientific papers on the subject.

    The pity of it is that we do not believe that everyone is 'at it' but that view would be easy to maintain since the number of voices raised against these practices in the shooting community is very small and rather quiet.  The community that protects its evil-doers has to share some culpability, surely?

    Personally I get on rather well with many members of the shooting community - their and my love of the outdoors and of nature gives us quite a lot to talk about.  I wouldn't be interested in shooting grouse or pheasant but I am not personally that worried that people do - and the RSPB which remains strictly neutral on the ethics of field sports.  But illegal activity is different - and that's what raptor persecution is.  And the shooting community has gone down in my estimation because it is not honest about what so many of its members know to be true - that illegal persecution of birds of prey (hen harriers included) is widespread and covertly encouraged.

    I have had moments when I have wondered whether this issue is so small in the big scheme of things that we should simply move on.  But then I always come back to the fact that if the RSPB does not speak up about this issue then precious few others will.  And it's wrong - killing protected wildlife is wrong.

    But what do you think?  Should the RSPB take a deep breath and calm down on this subject - or perhaps redouble its efforts?  You tell me.

    Previous blogs on this subject are (here, here, here, here, here and here) and here too.