April, 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
  • Migrants on my mind (3): guest blog from Grahame Madge

    Tonight, my colleague, Grahame Madge, has written a blog about the massacre on Malta informed, in part, by his own personal experiences.  

    “Absolutely insane!” That was the reaction from Chris Packham earlier today when I spoke to him after he saw Maltese hunters last night trying to stalk and shoot a group of Montagu’s harriers by torchlight, as the birds were trying to roost.

    In two words, he’s summed up the situation perfectly. It does indeed seem insane to try to shoot as many birds from the skies as possible. Malta is one of the Mediterranean’s key bird migration hotspots as each spring millions of birds pour into Europe from Africa. Storks, herons, flamingoes, birds of prey, spoonbills, bee-eaters, stilts, rollers and even songbirds are all considered ‘fair game’ by many of the islands’ hunters.

    A sign of the times: Hunters leave a threatening reminder to BirdLife Malta 

    The RSPB’s Vice President is visiting the islands in a private capacity, drawing international attention to the illegal killing of birds, which brings shame on a wonderful group of islands and prompts outrage from citizens across Europe.

    “They tried to shoot a roller yesterday,” he said disbelievingly, “but, fortunately that one got away.” I’m familiar with Chris, as a confident Springwatch presenter, enthusing about wildlife, but as we spoke I could hear in his voice that witnessing several days of hunters slaughtering birds was beginning to take its toll. Read more about Chris Packham’s Malta visit here

    Malta can have that affect on the toughest of people. I visited the islands several years ago but my memories are still vivid.  They say that smells transport you back to a place, and I can still remember the stench of death in my nostrils after looking at corpse after corpse of protected species, gunned down as they tried to fly over this Mediterranean idyll.  I was part of a regular contingent of RSPB staff who visit the islands helping our partner – BirdLife Malta – build their capacity to help fight the threat that illegal hunting poses to Europe’s migratory birds. We currently have staff taking their annual leave on the islands to help our partner.

    A fatally-wounded honey buzzard, illegally shot by hunters. Photo: Grahame Madge 

    I have worked for the RSPB for almost two decades, and in that time the issue of Maltese hunting has always been in my work programme, and, I’m keen that it’s resolved before I retire.

    In 2004, our hopes were lifted when Malta joined the European Union. At last, thanks to strong and internationally-revered bird-protection laws, there was a way of drawing the illegal killing to a close. However, 10 years later, the issue is still present as the islands’ hunters wield their political clout to lobby the Maltese Government to amend laws, trying to over-rule their international obligations. What the islands’ hunters can’t achieve through amending legislation, they will achieve through other means: bullying; intimidation and law-breaking, principally.

    Sometimes global problems seem intractable, and finding a solution to illegal bird killing across the Mediterranean is elusive. However, there are powerful allies. In polls, the vast majority of Maltese residents are also against illegal hunting and they are becoming more vocal. Staggeringly, around one in 10 of Maltese residents have signed a petition calling for a referendum where they will be able to vote to end spring hunting once and for all. Malta has pleaded with the European Union for a derogation from European law to allow the spring hunting of turtle dove. The cover of spring hunting provides a smokescreen for hunters to target other protected bird species, such as cuckoo and birds of prey. Our hard-working partner is striving to ensure the referendum takes place. Find out more about their work here

    Volunteers with BirdLife Malta mount a dawn patrol, monitoring the activities of hunters. Photo: Grahame Madge 

    The turtle dove is one of Europe’s fastest declining birds and although the reasons for its haemorrhaging population are not yet fully understood, it’s thought to be related to changing land use across parts its European breeding range. The hunters claim a right to shoot turtle doves because they’re not fully responsible for the decline, however, in a further act of insanity, they don’t recognise that taking thousands of birds from an already rapidly-declining population has anything to do with them.

    The issue of declining migratory birds is one of the greatest crises facing conservationists. There are many reasons for their decline, but hunting declining or protected species is a major threat. Our Birds Without Borders project, which has been supported by Chris Packham, is looking to identify the threats facing migratory birds where they nest, where they migrate through and where they spend the winter. Find out more about the Birds Without Borders project here

  • The conservationist's dilemma: an update on the science, policy and practice of the impact of predators on wild birds

    Today, I am speaking that the National Gamekeeper's Organisation AGM.

    I was pleased to be invited and it promises to be an interesting meeting.  I expect a bit of reciprocal challenge and, hopefully, a shared desire for collaboration to help wildlife.

    As part of my talk, I shall explain the RSPB's understanding of the impact that predators have on wild birds and our response.  I have previously written about how the RSPB uses the wildlife licensing system to support nature conservation (see here).  What follows is a bit of an update.

    First a bit of context...

    The NGO's AGM coincides with the breeding season and the RSPB is, of course, passionate about increasing the population of threatened species particularly on our 215 reserves across 151,197ha of land.  Dedicated work by a large team of staff and volunteers goes into creating just the right habitat to support priority birds (alongside the other 15,000 species that we are lucky enough to be responsible for on our estate).   As well as getting the habitat structure and the food supply right, we also have to ensure the birds are productive, raising a good number of chicks.

    The great conservationist's dilemma comes about when one species (usually a predator) threatens the population of another.  The big question that we have to address, particularly on our own land, is what do we then do about it?

    We have invested considerable research into the role of predators. This has included a review of the evidence of the impacts of predation on wild birds which concluded 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

    ...the evidence to implicate predators such as sparrowhawks in the declines of songbirds is very weak. 

    A more recent (as yet unpublished) review confirms these findings. 

    We have also done considerable work on the impacts of predation on breeding productivity of lapwings on lowland wet grasslands.  The research on lapwings has shown that, at the majority of sites studied, foxes are by far the most important predator of their nests. We have subsequently developed and installed predator-exclusion fences at suitable sites to help protect nesting waders against foxes (and also badgers at some sites). We now have predator-exclusion fences at 14 lowland wet grassland reserves.

    Waders at Ham Wall, RSPB nature reserve (David Kjaer, rspb-images.com) 

    Estimates suggest that lapwings need to fledge between about 0.6 and 0.8 young per pair to maintain a stable population. In 2013, at our reserves with predator-exclusion fences (such as Rainham Marshes), mean lapwing productivity was 1.05 chicks per pair.   Working with neighbouring land managers to restore habitats at a landscape-scale, we hope that the productive waders from our reserves will help to repopulate the surrounding countryside.

    However, occasionally foxes get inside our fences and at some sites ground-nesting birds are too widespread for fences to be effective.  In these circumstances we have to use lethal control.  These decisions are never taken lightly and are guided by our Council approved policy.

    As I have written previously, vertebrate control on RSPB reserves is only considered where the following four criteria are met:

    • That the seriousness of the problem has been established;
    • That non-lethal measures have been assessed and found not to be practicable;
    • That killing is an effective way of addressing the problem;
    • That killing will not have an adverse impact on the conservation status of the target or other non-target species.

    Below, I summarise numbers of vertebrates killed on RSPB reserves by us and our contractors during 2012/13. I have not included vertebrate control commissioned by third parties as part of existing rights.

    As these tables show, there are four main situations where the above criteria are met. These are to:

    • Increase breeding productivity of ground-nesting birds (mainly waders), principally by controlling foxes;
    • Reduce numbers of deer where they are having a detrimental impact on the vegetation, especially by overgrazing the ground flora in woodlands and preventing tree regeneration.  Often deer management is undertaken to prevent damage or aid recovery of nationally important wildlife sites;
    • Protect nesting seabirds;
    • Benefit water voles by killing non-native mink.

    We continue to wrestle with the conservationists dilemma, but are guided by the needs of threatened species, science and our policy.

    I look forward to hearing, amongst other things, the response from the gamekeepers to our approach.  Tomorrow, I shall let you know how it went.

  • Turbulent times for turtle dove

    I’ve been focusing on migrants on my blog over the past couple of weeks partly because it is spring, partly because they are in trouble but principally because of the heightened profile that Chris Packham has given to impact of spring hunting in Malta.

    The thing about migrants is that they, perhaps more than any other group, show the interconnected and fragile nature of our planet. The sight of our first swallow, a cuckoo calling or the song of a nightingale are hard-wired into national consciousness - but their survival requires international cooperation and enforcing laws here and across Europe.

    I am focusing on turtle dove because, as I said in my blog on Sunday (here), it is probably our most rapidly declining bird (94% in 40 years; 77% in the last decade) -.and their demise is echoing the extinction of the passenger pigeon in North America a century ago (the subject of a forthcoming book by my predecessor, Mark Avery, see here). 

    It is time to act.

    If we want to reverse the declines in our migrants, we have to do what we can to address all the problems they face throughout the flyway with a partners such as the BTO and Birdlife International.

    As we know, turtle dove is hunted in huge numbers in the Mediterranean (see Monday’s blog here) but as I will profile later this week, it is also subject to habitat destruction throughout their flyway and getting the habitat right in its breeding grounds here in the UK is equally important.

    Perhaps less well known is that turtle dove is also prone to disease – the topic of today’s blog.

    Scientists at the RSPB, working with colleagues from the University of Leeds, have discovered that a very high proportion (95%) of adult and nestling turtle doves sampled in East Anglia were infected by the Trichomonas parasite, which can lead to the disease trichomonosis. This parasite is common among pigeons and doves, is a serious threat to the endangered endemic Mauritian pink pigeon, and has also been implicated in the decline of greenfinch populations across the UK.  And it is not pleasant: the parasite causes lesions in the throat of infected birds preventing them from feeding and leading to death by starvation.

    Turtle Dove by Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)

    Although the infection rate is very high, relatively few of the birds actually showed clinical signs. All of those that did died of the disease, but it remains uncertain what effect the parasite may be having on the other infected birds. There were more birds showing clinical signs in 2012, a very wet summer in which many of our breeding birds suffered poor productivity. This raises the possibility that the effects of the parasite may be exacerbated by food stress, a potentially interesting link to the reduction in food availability or change in food quality, due to a reduction of seeds of arable flowers caused by changing farming practices, that have occurred over the period of the turtle dove’s decline.  I shall return to this in tomorrow’s blog.

    There does indeed appear to be a link between infection rates and food availability. Birds were more likely to be infected on farms that provided supplementary food for gamebirds, which also attracts pigeons and doves. This may be a similar problem as faced by greenfinches, where transmission of the parasite occurs at garden feeders that attract many birds. In support of this idea, a single red-legged partridge that also died from trichomonosis was found to carry the same strain of the parasite as the doves, also raising the possibility that the disease can be transmitted between doves / pigeons and gamebirds.

    So, our researchers have begun to learn a lot about disease in turtle doves, but many questions remain. What effect is the parasite having when a bird has no clinical signs? Is it the same strain of the parasite that is found in greenfinches (early evidence suggests that may be a relationship)? And perhaps most importantly, is the mortality associated with the disease contributing to the continued decline of this iconic species?

    We need to find answers to these questions and then identify and roll out solutions – something our scientists excel at.

    Tomorrow, I shall return to the challenges turtle doves face in finding enough food on their breeding grounds