March, 2014

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
  • Mitigate, adapt or suffer: the gauntlet laid down by climate change

    The best slogan I've come across for dealing with the challenge we face from climate change is 'mitigate, adapt or suffer'.  I first heard it from government chief scientist, Sir Mark Walport, in his recent lecture series.  The sad truth is that it is now not a question of whether we can avoid suffering, rather how much effort we are prepared to take to prevent a lot of suffering (for both people and nature).

    Tomorrow's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report was heavily trailed in the papers this weekend.  This report (which you will be able to read here) will focus on the impacts that climate chaos is having and could have on people and nature.   It is the latest reminder of the urgency to act and the suffering that we will cause if we don't.   The scientific consensus is that unless we stabilise atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gas emissions at 400-450 parts per million (we are currently at 393.1), then we risk the global temperature rising 2 degrees above pre-industrial averages and that would commit thousands of species to extinction.  A rule of thumb is that for every one degree rise in global temperature, 10% of species will be at risk. 

    While much of the climate change debate in recent years has focused on the need to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions and end our dependency on fossil fuels, this winter's storms has put the spotlight back on adaptation.  

    Golden plover silhouetted in flight, by Chris Gomersall,

    Five years ago, we produced a document on wildlife and adaptation which highlighted 20 tough questions and offered 20 rough answers (see here).  I really like this report.  Written by my colleagues Olly Watts and Ruth Davis (the former still working for the RSPB and the latter who has since moved on to Greenpeace), it  argued that governments must have a bold vision for adapting to climate change to help protect the world's vulnerable people, species and ecosystems. We ended our report with some principles to help wildlife survive, thrive and adapt.  We wanted...

    ...resilient populations in healthy habitats

    ...a massively increased area of land managed for environmental benefits

    ...a countryside more permeable for wildlife

    ...biodiversity safeguards built into adaption plans of other sectors.

    These principles seem as relevant today as five years ago - there is even a clear section on re-wildling which I think even George Monbiot would enjoy.  

    In many ways these are the same principles that have guided nature conservation since the Second World War.  The big difference is that the scale of environmental change is greater than ever before - climate change compounding the existing, major threats from habitat desctruction, overexploitation, pollution and the introduction of non-native species.

    While we have not seen the impetus in activity we would have liked when we produced the report, we have been applying these principles for many years in our practical conservation work and advocacy... 

    ...we continue to target our finite conservation resources on threatened species and their habitats to buy them time to adapt

    ...we continue to press for improved protection and management of natural and semi-natural habitats in protected areas and argue for more land/sea (we say 20%) to be managed primarily for nature alongside other objectives.  

    ...we continue to argue for sea/land uses (especially agriculture, forestry and fisheries) outside of protected areas to be managed more sympathetically for wildlife

    ...we try to prevent perverse consequences from action desgined to tackle climate change - for example by opposing unsustainable renewable energy projects or flood protection schemes that damage wildlife and natural flood defences and

    ...we factor in climate change considerations when planning our practical conservation work.

    As I shall report in further blogs later this week, this final response has made a real difference for a number of species driving, for example, the much celebrated revival of the bittern.  

    My hope is that this inspires others to do more for wildlife by offering a coping strategy in this rapidly changing world.  And I also hope that tomorrow's report catalyses action to deal with climate change, thereby preventing needless suffering in the future.

  • The Battle of Lodge Hill (part 6)

    Yesterday I referred to the challenges migrant birds face when cross the Mediterranean.  Today, I want to return to the threats on their breeding grounds here on the UK and once again ask for your help.

    In January this year, I wrote about our ongoing battle to save the (now protected) nationally important population of nightingale at Lodge Hill in Kent (see here).  

    Disappointingly – but as predicted – the Ministry of Defence and their delivery partner, Land Securities, submitted a revised Outline Planning Application at the end of February to build around 5,000 homes on this nationally important site for nightingale. 

    If this proposal were to succeed, not only would it result in the loss of the only designated site for nightingale in the UK, but it would also seriously undermine the Government’s flagship planning policy – the National Planning Policy Framework.

    To recap, a few things to bear in mind about Lodge Hill and this proposal...

    • Lodge Hill is the only SSSI in the UK notified specifically for nightingales and possibly the single most important site for nightingales in the country.  The site is estimated to hold more than 1% of the national population - particularly important given the fact that nightingale numbers have suffered a serious declines in recent years.
    • The proposed development would destroy the majority of nightingale habitat at the site and constitute one of the largest ever losses of a SSSI to development. 
    • Medway Council’s Core Strategy was withdrawn at the end of last year after an independent planning inspector found that the allocation of housing at Lodge Hill was in conflict with the Government’s flagship national planning policy.  This proposal fails to meet the tests set out in Government policy to protect places important for wildlife.  If it is allowed to proceed, it would set a deeply damaging precedent for many of our most special sites for wildlife.

    Yesterday, many of you said that you would help encourage the UK Government to end trapping of migrants on a British Military Base in Cyprus.  Today, you can also help protect an important migrant population at home.  Please respond to the Council’s consultation on these plans. With your help, we can send Medway Council the message that it’s completely unacceptable to build on this protected site.  Instead they should look for appropriate alternatives to meet their housing needs.

    The updated planning application comprises a staggering five boxes of papers, but this short consultation only runs until 15th April, so please write your letter as soon as you can.  For further details of how to get involved go the ‘How you can help’ page here.

    Many thanks for your continued support.

  • Saving birds without borders but on British soil

    It's that time of year.  The wheatears and chiffchaffs are arriving.  Before you know it, the nightingales, cuckoos, swallows, swifts and turtle doves will turn up to provide the sights and sounds of our spring and summer.

    The wonder of migration always brings cheer after the long, cold (or wet) winter.  Yet, many of these migrants are in deep trouble: turtle doves down by 90% in just a quarter of a century, nightingale down by 46% in less than 20 years, and cuckoos down by 72% in a similar period.

    Tackling the decline of those birds which visit Europe in summer and spend the winter in Africa is one of our top 21st century conservation challenges.   As I have written previously (for example see here and here), these birds fly incredible distances, facing immense threats along the way – and many don’t make it. Despite legal protection across the European Union  through the Birds and Habitats Directives, the illegal persecution of migrant birds is still a big issue in many Mediterranean countries. And to our great shame, one of the hotspots for the illegal killing of migrant birds in the Mediterranean is on British soil, in the Sovereign Base Areas of Cyprus (the SBAs).

    The RSPB has been working with our partner, BirdLife Cyprus, for more than a decade to try to reduce the numbers of birds being illegally killed. We have a rigorous programme in place to monitor the activity, but sadly in recent years the situation has been getting worse, with the trappers even planting areas of irrigated acacia woodland to fool migratory birds into thinking these areas offer a refuge in which to rest and feed. In fact, these sites are death traps, concealing the trappers’ nets and early morning crimes.  All of this ‘trapping infrastructure’ is tolerated on a British military base on Cyprus.  This begs the question - would these activities be tolerated on Ministry of Defence land in the UK, places such as Salisbury Plain?

    Although many birds are killed on British military bases, primarily Dhekelia, most are consumed in the Republic of Cyprus, and trapping also occurs there. It is clear that a solution to this problem will require both sets of authorities to make changes and take the issue seriously, rather than remaining inactive and blaming each other.

    Golden oriole Oriolus oriolus, caught in a net, Cyprus (

    On Sunday, the Mail on Sunday reported that His Royal Highness Prince Charles has made a much-needed intervention in Cyprus about this issue. We welcome the Prince’s interest, and hope this Royal involvement can finally catalyse some serious action. If the Minister of State for the Armed Forces, Mark Francois MP, gives the direction, the acacia and irrigation systems could all be removed before this autumn in time to save hundreds of thousands of young birds who will be caught in nets as they fly to their wintering grounds. The acacia is also a non-native plant in Cyprus so it’s removal would also be benefiting native wildlife and habitats.

    The Minister needs to show leadership and give the direction for the acacia and irrigation systems to be removed before this autumn.

    Last year we understand that 500,000 birds were killed on the eastern Sovereign Base Area. The authorities could prevent this from being repeated this year. Trapping was made illegal on Cyprus in 1974 - wouldn’t it be great to if progress to prevent the needless killing could be made 40 years on?

    And you can help.

    If you’re thinking of visiting Cyprus this summer, you could also raise this issue with the tourism office, your hotel, and any Cypriots you meet. You could also consider finding out about the work of BirdLife Cyprus, and supporting our partner on the island.  And before you travel, you could get in touch with your MP to call for the removal of all illegally-planted non-native acacia from the Sovereign Base Areas. Please ask him or her to raise the issue with the Minister. Find out who your MP is and how to contact them here. For more information on how to write to your MP see our campaign guide here.

    We're taking action with a range of partners, such as Birdlife and BTO, to address migrant declines across their flyway - from their breeding grounds here in the UK to their wintering grounds in Africa.  It's a major challenge, so if you are feeling motivated to help further, please do help us save our summer visitors by donating here today.