My passion for wildlife was stimulated in my teenage years, mainly thanks to my Mum (a biology teacher) who made me look at the world differently and being inspired by writers such as Paul Colinvaux. This early interest developed into biological research in my 20s, when I did practical conservation work in places such as the Comores and Mongolia.
Today, any free time I have I spend pottering around the flatlands of East Anglia or escaping to our hut on the Northumberland coast looking for wildlife and castles with my wife and children.
I studied Biological Sciences at Oxford and Conservation at UCL, and worked at Wildlife and Countryside Link before spending five years as Conservation Director at Plantlife.
I joined the RSPB as Head of Government Affairs in 2004, became Head of Sustainable Development in 2006, before becoming Conservation Director in 2011.
The images of seabirds covered in a gluey substance known as polyisobutene (PIB) are horrendous. This pollution incident is yet another reminder of the many and varied threats wildlife faces from human activity. And it ought to act as a kick up the backside of those responsible for trying to improve protection of our seabirds and other sealife.
We now know hundreds of seabirds have died on the south coast of England from two pollution incidents involving PIBs this year. My colleague, Pete Exley, was down at Lantic Bay on Friday filming with BBC news on a beach that has borne the brunt of this disaster. He didn't mince his words...
“My first thought when I saw birds covered in PIB was what an absolute b*****d of a substance. One of the locals who has been documenting the unfolding tragedy was helping us with filming. She’d gone down to check a neighbouring beach and found scores more bodies - a fresh influx. The birds were all guillemots, and smothered - imagine a very thick PVA glue, white and lumpy, and very adhesive. Everything sticks to it, so the birds were plastered with bits of rubbish, seaweed, flotsam. Imagine diving into a tub of PVA then rolling along the high tide line - you'll get the picture.”
BTO Image Library
While our short term priority is to help others with the clean up operation, we've also joined forces with the RSPCA and The Wildlife Trusts to call on Transport Minister, Stephen Hammond MP, to ban the discharge of PIBs. It can be legal to discharge PIB when ships wash out their tanks at sea, but these permissions are based on tests carried out under laboratory conditions. Bizarrely, there is no consideration of what happens when the chemical meets sea water, beyond whether the substance floats or sinks. In the sea, however, the polyisobutene transforms into a glue-like, ‘waxy’ formation, coating the feathers of birds, preventing them from diving and finding food. The longer-term effects of legal PIB releases on other parts of the marine environment are largely unknown.
The natural world is bombarded by threats we describe as the five horsemen of the apocalypse: habitat destruction, overexploitation/persecution, introduction of non-native species, pollution (especially climate change) and everything else!
We should, of course, be banning ships from discharging PIBs at sea and tackling other threats to marine wildlife. But we should also ensure the best places are properly protected. Successive governments have promised a network of marine protected areas yet the current suite of sites is woefully inadequate. These MPAs won't in themselves prevent pollution incidents. But what they will do is provide safe havens for marine species buying them time to adapt to whatever environmental changes come their way.
As the weather warms up and our minds turn to days spent ambling on the beach, spare a thought for what may be happening beneath the waves. Expect better and help us do something about it.
I wrote yesterday about our approach to predators and what we do when science shows that predation affects populations of threatened species. Today, I am delighted to host a guest blog from one of our great team of conservation scientists, Dr Jennifer Smart. Here, she reports on the results of research project designed to help the conservation of lapwings. The results have implications for conservation policy and practice. I would be delighted to hear your views.
I am a bit of a wader fanatic and my favourite bird is a redshank. I am fortunate to work for the RSPBs Conservation Science department, and I live and work in the fantastic wetland landscape of the Norfolk Broads. BUT, I am increasingly saddened by the fact that many parts of the Broads no longer have breeding waders like lapwings and redshanks, a picture which is mirrored across wetlands in the UK. I am optimistic that things will improve, because we have been working hard to understand the pressures faced by these waders and what conservation solutions work.
What are the pressures faced by these waders?
Waders were once widespread and common. They declined because changes in wet grassland management meant they became less suitable for breeding. These days some species, like snipe, hardly ever breed outside nature reserves. As numbers have declined, they are more vulnerable to predation, especially as predator populations have also been increasing. Scientific evidence tells us that the populations of ground nesting species, such as lapwing and redshank, can be limited by high predation levels.
What are the conservation solutions?
Early on, there was much focus on how to manage grasslands for breeding waders. Lapwings like very short vegetation while redshanks need taller vegetation, so fields should have a mosaic of vegetation heights. Both species choose fields with wet features and the more wet features there are, the more lapwings and redshanks you get. Although this is simplistic, this is the fundamentals of wader management and because of this research, wet grassland restoration and recreation from arable land, particularly within nature reserves, has been very successful at increasing wader populations.
We also need more land managed for waders outside nature reserves. Fortunately, farmers can receive payments through agri-environment schemes, for sympathetic management, but does this approach work? New research published yesterday in Journal of Applied Ecology, asked whether habitat management funded through these schemes, improved conditions for lapwings breeding on grasslands in the uplands. The places where these lapwing breed, was in better condition where land was being managed through agri-environment schemes, and the number of young lapwings fledged was also higher. Unfortunately, the numbers of breeding lapwings were still declining because these improvements were not sufficient to halt the declines. It is very likely that not enough lapwings benefited from the improved conditions to effect the whole population and, given evidence from other upland research, that breeding success was also being reduced by predation.
We are also working on the problem of predation. Where foxes and badgers have been excluded using electric fences, lapwings fledge many more young than unprotected pairs. On reserves where predators such as crows and foxes are at high densities, controlling these predators produces more young lapwings. Some very recent research on RSPB reserves has found some promising habitat management techniques that reduce the number of wader nests that are taken by predators, but you will have to watch this space, as new work funded by Defra, is underway to test whether this also applies to waders breeding on land outside reserves.
What does this all mean for the future of wader conservation?
Our future vision is of landscapes where breeding waders are once again widespread and common. RSPB recently hosted a workshop to discuss how to achieve this and some key things emerged from those discussions. Time and money for conservation is always limited and this means we need to identify landscapes where there are still breeding waders and opportunities to improve management around and between those places. At the heart of these targeted landscapes, nature reserves should act as a source of birds with best practise habitat and predator management in place. We recognise that this will take time and we are already working in many of those landscapes but by continuing to use our reserves to trial novel methods and co-operating with other land managers to deliver great wader management, I am confident that there is a future for breeding waders in the British countryside.
One of the more contested parts of the RSPB’s work revolves around predation and particularly those native predators that eat birds.
It is, however, a fact of life that all bird species are subject to predation. Predators have lived alongside most of their current natural bird prey for thousands of years without eliminating them. However, bird populations can decline or their numbers can be held low where levels of predation on them are high.
The reality is that predators are loathed by some and loved by others. Our view is simple – native predators are part of the rich variety of life as worthy of conservation as any other species. I would go further: a key test of whether we are living sustainably is whether we are able to coexist with predators.
Emotions spill over in debates about fish-eating birds such as cormorants and goosander or when birds of prey are perceived to conflict with commercial shooting interests (such as buzzards on pheasants or hen harrier on grouse).
The conservationists’ dilemma comes when science shows that predation is a contributory factor to the decline of already threatened species.
In 2007, we compiled a review of the impacts of predators on wild birds. We looked at the peer-reviewed published literature and drew some conclusions.
“The review concludes that generalist ground predators, such as foxes, can sometimes reduce the population levels of their prey, and that this is a growing worry if we are to conserve populations of threatened ground-nesting birds, for example lapwings. This conclusion accords with the RSPB’s considerable practical experience as a land manager of over 130,000 hectares in the UK. The review also concludes that the evidence to implicate predators such as sparrowhawks in the declines of songbirds is very weak.”
We have recently undertaken a follow up review which we shall publish in due course. But I can reveal that the results of this review (looking at the scientific literature since 2007) broadly reinforce these conclusions. The review also raises some interesting questions around the ultimate drivers of “predation problems”. In many cases, it appears there are other factors which if addressed, could remove or greatly reduce the predation effect. But more to come on this later in the year...
Where evidence suggests that predation is causing a problem for species of conservation concern, the RSPB’s strong preference remains to concentrate on habitat measures that favour the prey species and make life more difficult for the predator. For example, where lapwing productivity and numbers on our nature reserves are poor, we concentrate first on improving the habitat for lapwings (usually supported by agri-environment schemes) and on creating physical barriers such as electric fences to limit fox access. Sometimes the stakes are so high for ground nesting birds that there is no alternative to predator control – it is always a last resort.
Twenty-first century conservation requires us to look at both proximate and ultimate causes of decline. That is why we reject any strategy that fixates on control of native predators as the silver bullet. For some species (such as songbirds) it will be a red-herring, for others it might need to be part of the solution, but on its own it will never be enough. In many ways, the impact of predation is a symptom of a broken environment, tackling the symptom doesn’t cure the disease but it does buy vital time.
Tomorrow I shall report on new research on lapwings which will give pointers to how policy and research should evolve to help address the conservationists’ dilemma.
What do you think about our position on predators?
It would be great to hear your views.