November, 2013

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
  • Celebrating seabird success

    The headline from this week's publication of Birdlife International's Red List for birds was bad news - more species threatened with extinction than ever before.

    But there was some good news.  For example, the conservation prospects of two albatross species (Black-browed and Black-footed) have improved.

    Black-browed Albatross, Grahame Madge (

    Red Lists calculate the risk of a species becoming extinct.  They help gauge the scale of the conservation challenge and where to target finite conservation resources. 

    Back in 2004, 19 out of the 22 species of albatross appeared in the top three categories of risk: Critically Endangered, Endangered or Vulnerable.  They were at a high risk of extinction primarily due to bycatch from long line fishing. 

    The RSPB response was to work with Birdlife to find ways to encourage fishermen to catch fish rather than seabirds.  Thanks to the generosity of RSPB members and some major donations from a range of sources, we were able to recruit an Albatross Task Force working on board boats and to influence the rules governing the management of tuna fisheries around the world.

    The results has been spectacular.  We have seen bycatch rates reduce dramatically in fisheries where we have been working (for example, there has been a 90% reduction in bycatch in some South Africa fisheries).  And, this has played a significant part in the down-listing in threat status in some species.

    The table below shows how the threat to albatrosses has shifted over time.  Today, just 15 out of 22 species now appear in the top three extinction risk categories.

    In less than a decade, the Birdlife International Global Seabird Programme has helped deliver brighter prospects for some of our most iconic seabirds.  There is still much to do - especially to extend conservation efforts to Asia.  The team invovled are a committed and inspirational bunch and I know they will not stop until they can guarantee a positive future for all 22 albatrosses.

    Hats off to the team for all their efforts.  

  • Does Defra have a plan to close the funding gap?

    I spent the weekend with friends in Oxfordshire, a stone's throw from Aston Rowant  NNR.  While not the best time to enjoy the chalk grassland, red kites were everywhere.  A bit distracting for drivers (especially those, like me, that struggle at the best of times) but a wonderful addition to our skies.

    The BTO Bird Atlas, published last week, includes a load of good news stories, such as the red kite.  These remind us what conservation can do to turn round the fortunes of threatened species.  At the Atlas launch, Biodiversity Minister Lord de Mauley rightly drew attention to these successes but he also put a spotlight on current concerns such as the plight on farmland birds.

    Successive governments have promised to fix this problem yet despite the efforts of some farmers and millions of CAP pounds, this year's farmland bird index was at its lowest level to date.  What is even more galling is that we have identified many of the solutions that could allow the species to recover but we have not yet managed to encourage sufficient farmers put in place adequate habitat to help them.

    The good news is that Defra is in the process of designing a new agri-environment scheme, innovatively called the New Environmental Land Management Scheme (or NELMS) and we think they are doing a good job.  A well-designed scheme targeted at the right locations could make a big difference.

    The bad news is that whatever the outcome of the current CAP consultation, Defra have a major funding problem.  As environmental commitments (to both biodiversity and compliance with the EU Water Framework Directive which obliges Member States to ensure water bodies are in good condition) grow, the amount of available funds for agri-environment schemes is going to diminish over time.  

    The graph below, drawn using government's own data, shows the widening funding gap.  The green bits show the funding needed and the coloured lines show what would happen to available funding in the various scenarios outlined in the CAP consultation. 

    Defra knows it has a problem.  Farmland wildlife is failing to recover and their number one tool for aiding its recovery is being cut.  The response must be first, to ensure that Defra chooses to transfer the maximum amount of CAP funds available into agri-environment schemes and retain their focus on the environment.  Second, it must look at alternative means of improving the environmental performance from our farmed landscape. If there is no more money, and if market solutions are not readily available, then it must either rely on the good faith of the farming sector or be prepared to, well, use regulation.

    Decisions that current ministers such as Lord de Mauley make will inevitably have an impact on the abundance and range of species in future bird atlases.  Here's hoping that Lord de Mauley and his successors heed the words of BTO President and former RSPB Chief Executive, Baroness Barbara Young, and does what it takes to ensure that "those that are thriving continue to thrive and those are no longer thriving, thrive again".

    Help Ministers to make the right decisions on the CAP by supporting our campaign here.

  • Bird Atlas 2007-11: a guest blog from Andy Clements, BTO Director

    On the day of the launch of the new Bird Atlas, I am delighted to host a guest blog from BTO boss, Andy Clements.  The Atlas is a towering achievement and all involved (including the volunteers) deserve credit, thanks and a celebratory glass or two.  I am convinced that the data will be underpinning conservation efforts for years to come... 


    The wait is over. Over the next few days, Bird Atlas 2007-2011 will be gracing breakfast tables, desks and bedside cabinets of the 7000 or so people who pre-ordered their copy a few months ago. I have been quoted as saying this is the most important bird book for two decades and, in the commentary I’ve seen so far, no-one has disagreed. This evening, 100 or so people from Government, academia, the NGO conservation sector, and the birding community will join us at The Royal Society to celebrate this achievement. This book is the product of a cast of thousands. The last 14 pages list the contributors of bird-watching observations that make this Atlas what it is.It is a partnership between BTO, BirdWatch Ireland and the Scottish Ornithologists’ Club, ensuring we cover the whole biogeographical unit of Britain and Ireland. The book is dedicated to the many local organisers and validators whose voluntary contributions were fundamental in enabling the gathering and checking of 19 million records! Hugely impressive quality from 40,000 skilled volunteers! It is a significant body of scientific work.

    Atlases help to set the ornithological conservation agenda for a decade. They present the most complete picture of distribution and abundance with more than 99% coverage of Britain andIreland in  this particular Atlas. And the information makes compelling reading, setting the scene for further interpretation and research, fuelling our ability to inform the conservation debate. This is a story of change. Having produced a series of Atlases since the early 1970s we can now illustrate changes over a 40 year period - a gradual and widespread thinning in the range of Curlew over this time-span is a good example. Chapter 6, on Pattern and Change by Rob Fuller et al begins to interpret some big-picture changes, and it makes fascinating reading. By looking at species groups, such as waders or raptors, and those grouped by habitat preference, we are shown new perspectives on change. My own eye is caught by: the geographical divergence in patterns of abundance change for species including migrants where abundance decreases in the south-east contrast with increases in the north-west; the mapping of the southern herons’ new arrivals; the identification of new groups of conservation concern including breeding waders and upland birds; the unprecedented spread of Buzzard and Raven, and; setting baselines for the colonisation of non-native species.

    The changes illustrated by Bird Atlas 2007-11 create a platform for future research and conservation practice over the next ten years. That’s why we make all the Atlas data available toRSPB (and the statutory nature conservation agencies) for conservation purposes. And there is no-one better than David Gibbons, the lead author of the previous BTO Atlas, to determine with RSPB colleagues how best to build on the Atlas to inform future conservation. The BTO is already actively working on Atlas research, and there is much still to do. In the New Year we will be leading an appeal for Atlas research funds to ensure that the most is made of this monumental workundertaken by volunteers. In the meantime I would urge you to the follow this week’s words of Martin’s predecessor at RSPB, Dr Mark Avery  – “Buy it, read it!”