August, 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
  • A short tale from the Pyrenees

    Having driven the family for four hours through the Pyrenean mountains, it was perhaps no surprise that my daughter tumbled out of the car and promptly threw up on the entrance to La Rectoria.  We were late for our scheduled visit to see the vultures of the Muntanya d'Alinya, a large private estate in Catalonia.  It had seemed like the perfect way to fill 'turnaround Saturday' - the day when the world and his dog seemed to be on the move travelling to, from or between holiday homes.  

    We arrived on the recommendation of a colleague in the hope of seeing the vultures get their weekly feed.  But our tardiness meant that the group had already departed and so we had to make a swift ascent up the hill to the viewing platform - the girl deciding that the best way up was on her Dad's back.

    Before we reached the top, we looked up and saw about 200 vultures soaring above.  The guides had kindly delayed putting out the food so we could catch up, but it was clear that the vultures were ready.  We'd seen a couple of Griffon Vultures the previous week on the French side of the Pyrennees but seeing 200 hundred playing in the thermals was spectacular.

    Once we'd reached the group, the guides gave the go-ahead for the food to be put out.  Within moments, the vultures descended to scavenge what they could.  Through our scopes we had a pretty good view of the magnificent creatures feed about 500 metres from where were standing.  Nearly all were the more common Griffon Vulture but we did manage to see a couple of Lammergeier.  And while we heard about (but didn't see) the success of the (absent) Black/Cinereous Vulture reintroduction programme and the migration route of the Egyptian Vulture, a flock of Bee-eaters were heard and then seen fly overhead.  

    The vultures ate as much as they wanted, then gently flew past us before dispersing over the mountains.  It was a wonderful way to spend a couple of hours.  Once we had made our way back down the hill, we celebrated in the best way possible with a late and very long lunch.

    The visit to the vultures was one of the highlights of a holiday which was spent mostly in hills full of colour with late summer flowers and when the sun allowed, clouds of butterflies.  

    It was, of course, hugely restorative but the holiday inevitably provided references to what was going on back home...

    ...Vultures, like UK birds of prey, remain vulnerable to deliberate and accidental killing.  Pan-European action is required, for example, to end the use of the veterinary drug diclofenac in Europe.  At home, persecution continues which is why I was delighted to hear of the successful (if damp) Hen Harrier Day and was thrilled to hear that our Skydancer project had won a National Lottery award.  The heightened public profile must lead to action: a decent Hen Harrier Action Plan and the introduction of a licensing system for driven grouse shooting would be a good place to start.

    ...Bee-eaters are spectacular birds which brightened my holiday.   It was lovely to hear of the nesting success of the pair at the National Trust property on the Isle of Wight.  Species are on the move and we know that climate colonisers will preferentially choose protected areas so the need to 'protect the best' is as important as ever.

    ...reintroduction programmes (whether for Black Vulture in the Pyrenees or for White-tailed Eagle in Scotland) can successfully bring species back from the brink girl is a better walker than passenger.  Something she will be reminded of when she returns to school next week.

  • Revelling in diversity

    One of the great joys of the UK nature conservation scene is the rich mix of organisations that you get to work with.

    There are societies, charities and local groups that work on pretty much every taxonomic group including algae, amphibians, badgers, bats, beesbryophytes, bugs, butterflies, cetaceans, dragonflies, fungi, hedgehogs, plants (x2), sharkssnails, spiders, trees, oh and birds.  There are also 47 wildlife trusts and an organisation dedicated to marine conservation.

    I think that this diversity is worth celebrating.

    Each organisation is full of people that love (and know a lot about) nature.  And each organisation contributes hugely to our knowledge of the natural world.

    To some, the sector might look messy and in desperate need of rationalisation.

    To others (including me), the sector is brilliant because of its diversity. Without it, we would not be able to harness the expertise and enthusiasm of those with very specific interests - many of whom give their time for free.  Without it, we would not be able to report on the state of nature.  And without it, nature conservation and perhaps our society would be poorer.

    This is why I urge you to go in search of something new and join one of these great organisations. 

    But those that donate to these organisations might expect us to work better together to make sure their money works hard for nature conservation.  I agree.  That's why we are trying to deepen collaboration between organisations and ensure that there is a clearer conservation strategy behind which we can collectively rally.  This doesn't need to be written down but it is helpful to roughly know where we are heading and that we are all, more or less, going down the same path together.  

    This is why we are developing a shared agenda for future species monitoring, why we are increasingly sharing data and ideas for research, why we are working together better on nature reserve management, why we are working together to restore wildlife at a landscape scale and why we want to collaborate to influence others to do more for nature.

    Yes, at times, organisations might sharpen their elbows and feel competitive to one another - mainly regarding media profile.  But the real competition comes from organisations that are happy to trash the environment in pursuit of other goals.  Given the ever increasing pressures on the natural world, we need solidarity within the sector.  And, I believe this solidarity is growing which can only be a good thing.   

    The investment of effort in building partnerships is worth it.  Together we can and will be mighty.

  • Reply to GWCT letter to The Times on grouse moor management

    I'm still on holiday this week, so here's another guest post. This time from RSPB Director of Scotland, Stuart Housden:

    Last Thursday, Teresa Dent, Chief Executive of the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT), who has recently been appointed to the Board of Natural England, sent a letter to 'The Times' on grouse moor management, and it was widely promoted by GWCT. Although it wasn't published, I thought it would be helpful to respond to the content and to set the record straight on a few things where the RSPB was mentioned.

    As you would expect, Teresa seeks to present the work of grouse moor managers in a positive light. She specifically mentions the success of the curlew found on moors managed for red grouse in the North Pennine Moors Special Protection Area (SPA). Curlew are a species which is very important to the RSPB, as its the land bird for which we arguably (after the Scottish crossbill) have the biggest contribution to make in the UK in terms of its European importance.

    Our own research has shown that legal predator control can be important in maintaining breeding populations, particularly where there is a 'predator edge effect' from adjoining conifer plantations. Tackling the root causes of predation is something we must all focus on in the future to help us manage this conservation issue more effectively. Blocks of forestry or improved grassland can help foxes, and crows survive (as they are generalist feeders) and in turn this can impact breeding success of curlews and other ground-nesting birds.

    There is no doubt that gamekeepers seeking to protect red grouse can benefit curlews and some other ground-nesting species. The sympathetic management of moorland is similarly beneficial, preventing conversion to conifer plantations, or loss through overgrazing by sheep. But this can be overdone, with too frequent burning, scrub removal, and the use of moorland drains which damage wetland areas or peatlands.

    Red grouse. Image by Tom Marshall (

    Driven grouse shooting does not take place on any of our upland RSPB nature reserves and yet they support healthy numbers of breeding curlews, black grouse and other ground-nesting birds. This would not be the impression you gained from the text from Teresa Dent or the GWCT study mentioned. For example, at RSPB Dove Stone in the Peak District we have, since 2010, seen increases in breeding dunlin of 160%, golden plover (19%) and curlew (17%) since we undertook landscape-scale re-wetting and restoration of degraded peatlands there.

    We can also report that breeding waders have seen a threefold increase at RSPB Geltsdale since 2003, while the black grouse population has increased more than sevenfold in this time; from seven lekking males in 2005, to 55 in 2014. Therefore, although some ground-nesting birds can benefit from the habitat management provided on grouse moors, it is misleading to say that they can only be found where grouse moors are managed for shooting grouse. A bit more respect for this from those in the sporting fraternity would be welcome.

    What Teresa doesn't mention is that the North Pennine Moors SPA is also designated by Natural England for supporting 11 pairs of hen harriers (about 2% of the UK population). This species has not nested there for eight years, despite recent assessments that the site could support well in excess of 11 pairs. So, why aren't they there and why has GWCT chosen to put a selective spotlight on a species that has benefited from grouse moor management in the SPA?

    The Bowland Fells SPA should also support far more than the two pairs of harriers currently present, having supported 13 pairs at the time of designation as an SPA. Where are those harriers today? For the record, RSPB nature reserves across the UK provided a home to 42 pairs of hen harriers last year, about 8% of the national population, found on a tiny percentage of the UK's uplands where the RSPB has reserves.

    Despite the tensions with sport shooting, we don't support a ban on driven grouse shooting because we think these moors can play and should play a role in helping birds like the curlew. We continue to work with moorland managers at the joint Langholm Moor Demonstration Project, and are pleased to be involved with other similar initiatives on grouse moors such as the Operation Countrywatch underway in Perthshire. Teresa's figures show the curlew is recovering in the North Pennines, but it continues to decline in the lowlands and in fragmented upland landscapes.

    But, and there is always a but, there is also very strong evidence of illegal damage and destruction of protected species, and in some cases their habitats, on driven grouse moors from the North of Scotland to the Peak District. Increasingly, grouse moor managers are seeking to increase the surplus of red grouse for shooting. This involves more intensive predator control, and on many estates a zero tolerance of protected species as well. It’s not just the RSPB that says this. The Government’s own statutory advisors have said just this in their framework documents for hen harriers and golden eagles.

    More action from Teresa and the GWCT to combat this directly is needed, especially since their own research at Otterburn shows the numbers and breeding success of ground-nesting birds increased in the presence of protected raptors. That's why we are asking political parties to introduce a robust statutory licensing system which will build public confidence in the management associated with the sport and root out the 'bad apples'. Then we might have growing populations of curlew and hen harrier on grouse moors across the UK, and place the industry on a long term and more sustainable footing.

    It is good to see the GWCT acknowledging the need for more hen harriers in the English uplands. It is also good to see them supporting a Hen Harrier Recovery Plan that tackles illegal persecution, which is the key reason for the loss of this species across northern England, and large parts of Scotland.

    We know if harriers are unmolested they can bounce back pretty quickly. I want GWCT to be providing the leadership required to put an end to illegal activity once and for all. We've heard calls for a more forward looking and enlightened approach before-but it seems some in the shooting community have failed to listen and wildlife crime has continued.

    There are now calls from GWCT, BASC and others for Defra to publish their Hen Harrier Action Plan amid allegations from some that the RSPB are blocking its progress. In principle, we have no objection to its publication but it would be premature given that it has yet to be finalised and a number of key points have yet to be resolved. We have worked hard to seek an agreement that resolves the harrier-grouse conflict, which delivers many more harriers, and is balanced, legal and effective. The RSPB needs to see:

    a) Zero-tolerance of illegal persecution from all stakeholders,

    b) State support for Detective-level Wildlife Crime Officers to tackle incidents of illegal persecution wherever they occur,

    c) The deployment of 'diversionary feeding' wherever harriers settle on moors.

    d) Reassurance that any brood management scheme will only be trialled once hen harrier numbers have recovered to a pre-agreed level, and after less interventionist approaches, particularly diversionary feeding, have been implemented thoroughly. The Joint Nature Conservation Committee (who provide advice on nature conservation to the UK Government) suggests that there is habitat for 323–340 pairs of hen harriers in England.

    With a more recent study co-authored by GWCT suggesting English grouse moors can support 70 pairs of hen harriers with little impact on their businesses and with only three pairs nesting successfully this year, brood management may be some way off yet. But getting started with a recovery plan to deliver the 70 pairs of harriers looks overdue to me.

    We now want Defra to take the lead and finalise the plan by the end of this calendar year (incorporating the points above) so that a detailed roadmap for recovery of the hen harrier in England can be financed and up and running by the start of the next breeding season.