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 (4): the big European question

    Chris Packham's week on Malta had an impact.  Through his video diary (here) and social media, he has brought the massacre of migrants on Malta into the homes of thousands of people and helped Birdlife Malta raise the funds they need to campaign for the proposed referendum to end spring hunting.  I am convinced that it will have given a huge boost to the Birdlife staff and volunteers some of whom have been campaigning on this issues for decades.  

    I think that Chris has also done something more profound: he has tapped into people's innate distaste for the needless, excessive and illegal slaughter of wild animals.  Some have argued that it was odd for Chris to travel to Malta to complain about illegal hunting when illegal killing of birds of prey continues throughout the UK - the recent poisoning of 16 red kites and 6 buzzards in Ross-shire being the latest most egregious example.

    But, of course, many of the birds being killed in Malta are potentially 'our' birds returning to breed in the UK.  Chris was showing solidarity to the majority of Maltese people that wants to see an end to spring hunting and I have no doubt that when Chris returns he will continue to do what he can to put a spotlight on illegal killing here in the UK.  

    But, the scale and extent of illegal killing of migrants throughout the Mediterranean needs much greater scrutiny.  And, in the run up to the European elections when people may be wondering why cross-border cooperation is necessary or desirable, the state of our migrant birds provide a timely reminder.  Take turtle dove - down by 74% across Europe and, as the Bird Atlas maps show below, down 94% in my lifetime in the UK (and 77% in the last decade).  The population is plummeting at such a rate that I have a real fear that when my children are my age, they will be unable to hear the song of the turtle dove in British summer.

    When Chris wrote his 'one big thing for nature' blog for me last year (here), he urged us to elect politicians that cared about the natural world and saw nature conservation as part of their personal manifesto.  

    Well, with the European Elections just weeks away, you now have the chance to make your voice heard and vote count.

    When that prospective MEP comes calling, ask them what they are going to do to cooperate across Europe to save wildlife, especially those migrants that are massacred on migration.  And, if they get elected, check if they do anything about it. And keep checking, writing, pestering if you need to.  

    This week, I am going to keep the spotlight on migrants and especially turtle dove.  I shall say more about the scale and extent of hunting across the Mediterranean, but also say what the RSPB is doing in partnership with others here in the UK and throughout its flyway.

    Look again at these turtle dove distribution maps, and you'll see why we need politicians to take urgent action.

    Map reproduced from Bird Atlas 2007–11, which is a joint project between BTO, BirdWatch Ireland and the Scottish Ornithologists’ Club, with permission from the British Trust for Ornithology.

  • Everyone Should Hear a Nightingale, Every Spring: a guest blog from Chris Rose

    Chris Packham has done a heroic job in supporting Birdlife Malta and raising the profile of the massacre that migrants face in Malta.   I want to keep a profile on our magnificent migrants and so today, Chris Rose (campaign guru and co-founder of the Fairyland Trust) celebrates the song of one of our best loved migrants, the nightingale. 


    Wouldn't it improve our quality of life, if every man, woman and child in the UK could hear at least one nightingale sing, every spring? If you agree, please sign my petition asking the BBC to broadcast nightingale song live, on May 18th here.   

    Perhaps Lord Reith, famous first leader of the BBC thought so, for on May 18th 1924, a singing nightingale in a Surrey wood (with a famous cellist playing along) was the centerpiece of the BBC’s first ever ‘Outside Broadcast’. It was by wireless of course,  and as any birdwatcher knows, there is little point in trying to see a nightingale but every point in making the effort to hear one.

    An estimated one million people tuned in to that first ‘OB’.  The BBC and the cellist, Beatrice Harrison, were deluged with 50,000 letters of appreciation. So popular was the nightingale broadcast that thousands of people joined organised trips to the Surrey woods to hear the birds, and the BBC repeated the broadcast each May, until it was stopped in mid-broadcast in 1942, during the Second World War.  The sound of that wartime bird, recorded but never trasnmitted, has the noise of RAF bombers gathering overhead, in the background.  It is one of the spookiest, most evocative things I have ever heard – listen here

    When May approaches, my thoughts always turn to making the trip to my nearest reliable singing nightingales at Salthouse Heath in Norfolk but there do seem to be fewer than when I lived there a decade or so ago. If true, that is not surprising: the BTO found that nightingales declined by over 50% between 1995 and 2008, and there are reasons to think they are in deep trouble.  Muntjac deer are munching through the thick undergrowth they favour, and like many other migrants which spend much of the year in Africa, their habitat is threatened by climate change, and wholesale land use change for agriculture.  In this country, even the Lodge Hill nightingale stronghold  in Kent is threatened by house building, while most all insect-eating birds are in decline, probably because of the pervasive and insidious effects of widespread pollution from neonicotinoids and other agri-poisons.

    So I think it is high time that the BBC, the great informer and relayer of British national passions and culture, re-instated the nightingale tradition, with another OB this May 18th.  If the BBC has trouble finding a singing nightingale in these depleted times, I feel sure that readers of this blog, if not the RSPB itself, will be up to the task of locating one, or several.

    Nightingales are not the harbingers of spring but the soul of spring, with us like swifts, for only a few months before departing from our shores but from not our hearts.  With the right conservation efforts, our landscape could once again be made much more nightingale-friendly and the lives of our children and theirs could be enriched by their song.  

    As David Attenborough said, “No one will protect what they don’t care about; and no one will care about what they have never experienced”.  A recording is not the same as the real thing, any more than a stuffed Dodo or Great Auk is a real bird.  But hearing a real nightingale live is a step closer to experiencing the magic, and who knows, perhaps the RSPB or others could organise gatherings for those who wanted to get closer to authentic nature, to quietly stand and listen to nightingales, just as our great grandparents did in the 1920s and 1930s.  If you want to encourage the BBC, contact anyone in the organisation that you know, or if you don’t know anyone, ask your local radio station or tv programme to set up a broadcast – the contacts are at www.bbc.co.uk

    You can read more about the nightingale broadcast here and sign the petition here

    Thank you

    Chris Rose


    I shall give you an update on Chris' petition and challenge to the RSPB next week.

  • 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