July, 2012

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.

Martin Harper's blog

I’ve been the RSPB’s Conservation Director since May 2011. As I settle into the job, I’ll be blogging on all the big conservation topics and providing an inside view of our conservation projects. I hope you enjoy reading it and feel inspired to join in t
  • Slow down, take a moment and look to the skies for swifts

    We sometimes take swifts for granted.  They travel 6,000 miles to see us every May, bring drama to the skies throughout the summer, then leave us to cope without them for another eight months.  One of my simple pleasures in life is sitting in my Cambridge garden with a beer (when the kids are in bed obviously),  and watching the screaming parties of swift in the summer evening sun.

    But swift are in trouble: a 31% decline in the UK population over the past fifteen years or so.  We've been worried about loss of nesting sites particularly in towns and cities.  While they nest in caves and on cliffs, they also like the roof spaces in people's houses.  We've been concerned that these spaces get filled in, or new houses pop up without access to the roof.  This is why we clubbed together with Swift Conservation to launch our swift survey.  We want to know the location of swift nest sites so we can inform developers and local authorities to do more to protect and enhance nesting opportunities.  We need to learn to build with wildlife in mind.

     To make matters worse, we have had alarming reports that this summer's miserable weather has had a potentially disastrous impact on swift's breeding success.  The cold and damp weather has meant there are less flying insects: less food for swifts and for their young.  This is a problem because when there are chicks to feed an adult swift needs to catch up to 100,000 insects a day.  We have received reports of adults swifts pushing unhatched eggs out of nests and large flocks of swifts starting their migration back to Africa.

    We don't yet know the true impact of the dreadful summer weather on breeding success of swifts or indeed other species, but, as I reported yesterday, I expect bad news.  We have been warned that climate change will bring about more extreme weather events as well as global warming.  And, we certainly have had our fair share of extreme fluctuations in our weather recently - have we just emerged from the rainiest drought ever?  I would love to see a graph which plotted the number of weather records that have been broken each year.  My guess is that the graph would show an increasing trend.  And certainly annual global temperatures keep on rising. 

    Wildlife has to adapt to these changes and our own actions can make a difference.  We can help by protecting and buffering the most important places for wildlife and improve habitat connectivity.  And we can and must take responsibility for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.  This week's public row over the future of our energy policy shows that we are still woefully short of the political leadership we need to get us out of the mess we are in.

    So, today, look to the skies and spare a thought for swifts and all those other species that have to cope with our weather and our actions.


    Mike Langman (rspb-images.com)

  • Diminishing calls from the wild

    Ever since humans first cleared the wildwood and tilled Britain’s soils, the ground-nesting lapwing will have been a constant companion.

    In spring its plaintive ‘pee-wit’ would have been heard across every part of the UK from the uplands to coastal marshes and everywhere in between open enough to see a horizon.

    For me, the lapwing is one of our most beautiful and evocative birds.  It always elicits a positive reaction from people who see it for the first time and for those that have grown to love the bird, it encourages a passion that verges on a (healthy) obsession. 

    So it is with deep sadness to learn that today’s publication of the results from the Breeding Bird Survey show that these formerly ever-present birds have reached their lowest level since the 1990s.  And for those with memories extending a few decades earlier will realise the 1990s weren’t a high point in the lapwing’s abundance. These birds seem to be ebbing away fast from landscapes they have called home for thousands of years.  For some, this will seem unbearable and it requires urgent action.

    Other waders join the list too: snipe and curlew are also at their lowest ebbs. It is shocking to realise too that there is worse to come.  The results published today are the results from last year’s nesting season.  With floods washing out 600 wading birds at our Ouse Washes reserve this spring, the prospects for waders look even bleaker: these incidents haven’t yet been factored in to the ‘stocktake’.

    The birds covered in the Breeding Bird Survey aren’t ones which should need to rely on nature reserves.  They cover widespread birds; those that you and I could reasonably expect to see while walking through the countryside.

    John Bridges (rspb-images.com)

    But ten of the species recorded by the Breeding Bird Survey since it began in 1995 have halved in number.  Topping this list is the turtle dove.  Noted for their ‘purring’ song, four out of every five turtle doves purring in the 1990s have now disappeared.  The thousands of volunteers who help to count the nation’s birds are telling us that other countryside specialities are vanishing too: the whinchat, the spotted flycatcher, the nightingale, and even the starling are all less common than they were just two decades ago.

    We know the problem, but what’s the solution? Well, for our migrants, action at home will only ever be part of the solution.  We need to work with others – such as the BTO and our BirdLife International partners – to find out what is happening on their flyway and in their wintering grounds.  Yes, for some species, such as the turtle dove, research is needed to understand more about their needs. We’re even conducting research on resident birds like the house sparrow and starling to find out why they’re declining. Information from this research will help us to understand how to help them. 

    One of the biggest parts of our work is to develop ways that farmers can help birds on their farms.  By working with farmers, we’re helping to restore the numbers of countryside birds.  But farmers are facing volatile times, and we need farmers to be adequately rewarded for wildlife-friendly farming. Over the next few months, the European Commission will be finalising its budget, including how much it will pay to farmers for measures which help wildlife and the countryside.  We’re campaigning to ensure that those payments for wildlife-friendly farming are not only protected but boosted to enable farmers to do more to conserve our countryside and wildlife.

    It’s entirely possible that in 2020, we could have more farmland birds than we do today.  Yes, more lapwings, more turtle doves, and more yellow wagtails.  Farmers and conservationists have the desire, we’re completing the research, so all that’s lacking is the political will to help breathe the life back into our countryside.

    Easily said. We now need to make it happen.

    And finally, many congratulations to all those in the BTO, the JNCC and the RSPB for producing this report.  And more applause for the hundreds of volunteers who helped to provide the data. 

  • Rambling with the Deputy Prime Minister

    On Friday, I spent an hour in the Peak District with the Deputy Prime Minister.  There we are in the picture below - me with the green jacket and binoculars, he with the blue shirt and jumper.  The image, no doubt, poses a number of questions.  I've flagged up ten below and have even offered some answers...

    1. Why are there so many people surrounding the Deputy Prime Minister?  These fine people are representatives from the Sheffield Moors Partnership: Sheffield City Council, Sheffield Wildlife Trust, Peak District National Park Authority, National Trust and the RSPB, as well as Natural England. 

    2. Where are you? We were on Hathersage Moor, in Mr Clegg's constituency.  This is part of a landscape-scale conservation initiative encompassing 57 sq km (approx 8,000 football pitches) of publicly owned moorland to the west of the city.

    3.  Why is everyone looking so relaxed?  That's good partnership working for you.  The partnership has been formed to develop and enhance this landscape for the benefit of wildlife and local people through a programme of nature conservation, recreation, access improvement and public engagement projects including volunteering and lifelong learning.  

    4. Why are you talking to each other but not looking at wildlife?  Good point.  We should have been. The area comprises a mosaic of moorland, meadows, bogs and deciduous woodland, supporting rare breeding birds such as merlins and golden plovers. It also boasts one of only two red deer herds in the National Park and its only colony of adders.  But, we had quite a lot to cover with the DPM and were keen to make the most of his valuable time.

    5. What were you saying to Mr Clegg?  We were making the point that this Sheffield Moors are a major asset for the people of Sheffield and with careful management will be even better for wildlife.  By creating habitats such as new woodlands and creating better access, we want the Sheffield Moors to offer a high-quality natural environment that is teeming with wildlife, which in turn helps to improve the health and wellbeing of local communities, as well as offering additional public goods such as flood alleviation for Sheffield.  in short, we were making the case that it pays to invest in nature.

    6. Did he listen?  I think so - after all, it's a compelling story.  And, we reminded him that action by his government is giving work in this area a boost.  The Sheffield Moors Partnership forms part of the wider Dark Peak: Public and Private Lands Nature Improvement Area Partnership (Dark Peak NIA). This is one of 12 government-funded projects taking a landscape-scale approach to meet the challenges facing our wildlife.The Dark Peak NIA has secured £400k towards implementing the Sheffield Moors Partnership Master Plan, which is scheduled for launch in early 2013.

    7. This seems like a good news story - there must be a catch?  You're right, not everything is rosy, but I do think the partnership is reslient and will go from strength to strength.  But many of these projects require sustained funding.  Agri-environment schemes cover more than 50% of the management costs of the Sheffield Moors Partnership.  This funding flows from the Common Agriculture Policy, which is currently being reviewed and may be vulnerable because of the wider financial crisis.

    8. Will he do anything about it?  He's the Deputy Prime Minister and although the Prime Minister leads the negotiations on the EU Budget and Environment Secretary CAP negotitations, I am sure that, were he minded, he'd be able to intervene.

    9. Did it rain?  Of course it did.  Silly question.  But Mr Clegg was prepared and donned his mac.

    10. Will he go back?  He's a busy man, but it is so close to home, that I am sure he'll be out on the moor again soon.  Alas for a man of the flatlands of Cambridge, I may have to wait a little longer.

    And finally this Q&A reminds me that many of you asked Mr Clegg questions about his views on Rio+20.  I hope to post his answers in the next couple of days.  Watch this space...