...restoring the rest

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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

...restoring the rest

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Regular readers of this blog will know that I am a fan of the conservation mantra: “protect the best and restore the rest”.   We still have to fight hard to prevent declines of species like turtle dove and kittiwake and to protect our finest wildlife sites like Lodge Hill, yet restoration remains the ambition. 

As we are demonstrating at places like Wallasea Island (here), restoration of habitat can be complex, costly but hugely rewarding.  The same is true for species re-introductions and translocations - bringing back native species lost from where they once were.  It isn’t simply a case of opening a release pen and hoping for the best.  Like others, we follow the IUCN's guidelines which dictate how such releases should take place.  Before we embark on any reintroduction or translocation we want to ensure the threats to the species are removed or significantly reduced.  We also ensure that whatever we do is not detrimental to the species we are releasing or the species already present which will be sharing their habitat with the new arrival.  And, we always use the best available evidence to inform the choices you make.  This then gives the re-introduction project the best possible chance of success. 

In recent years, the RSPB has been working with a wide range of partners to bring species back to where they once lived.  Successes are hard won, built on the dedication, passion and expertise of not only our staff, but those of our volunteers and many partners.  And we have had a few success in recent years...

...the cirl buntings (1) back in Cornwall – the only successful songbird re-introduction in Europe,

Cirl bunting singing. Image by Andy Hay (www.rspb-images.com)

...the cranes (2) once more on the Somerset Levels

Recently released crane on the Somerset Levels. Image by Nick Upton (www.rspb-images.com)

...short-haired bumblebee (3) back showing signs of breeding at our Dungeness reserve after being declared extinct in the UK in 2000

Short-haired bumblebee. Photo by Jesper Mattias (rspb-images.com).

...smooth snake (4) being restored to their historic range, or

Smooth snake. Image by Nick Martin.

...white-tailed eagles (5) back breeding in Scotland.

White-tailed eagle. Image by Chris Gomersall (www.rspb-images.com)

There are all great examples of the impact that can be made by a bunch of determined conservationists, land mangers and local communities.

There isn’t an agreed manual of how to restore lost species. You can’t just adapt a recipe and hope that it’s successful, A lot of the pioneering work has to be tried and tested and occasionally projects prompt legitimate disagreements between those involved. The great bustard - the subject of yesterday's blog - hadn’t bred in the UK since 1832, but we hope that our involvement in the project to reintroduce it to Salisbury Plain has given the Great Bustard Group the greatest chance of success. Although we’re no longer part of the project (see here), that doesn’t diminish hopes of seeing others re-establish this magnificent bird in the UK.

We know from our work to eradicate rats from Henderson Island (here), working on the leading edge of current knowledge, we don’t always get it right first time.  The rats are still there and so is the threat to some of the UK’s most threatened species.  Those of you who read my blog regularly will know I’m an optimist at heart.   So even when things don’t go to plan, I retain my optimism.  Why? Because I know we are right to try and, more importantly, I know that through trying, we learn.  So, the next time we and our partners give something a shot, we have a better chance of being successful. 

Bringing nature back is incredibly rewarding.  For some, that reward may be the £5 million boost to the local economy stimulated by the return of the white-tailed eagles, for others it may be the joy expressed by a schoolgirl returning home to tell her grandfather how excited she is that his farm has cranes back.  For others, simply seeing a white-tailed eagle soar in the sky, hearing a crane bugling through the mist hanging low over the Somerset Levels, or enjoying a wildflower meadow as it hosts the return of the short-haired bumblebee is reward enough.

And this, ultimately, is why I believe the restoration challenges are worth the effort.

What emphasis do you think the RSPB should place on restoring lost biodiversity?

It would be great to hear your views.


I would like to thank all our partners for their commitment to these challenging and exciting projects including...

1) Cirl Bunting project partners: National Trust, Natural England, Paignton Zoo Environmental Park, RSPB,  Zoological Society of London.

2) Cranes project partners: Pensthorpe Conservation Trust, RSPB, Viridor Credits, Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust.

3) Short-haired Bumblebee project partners: Bumblebee Conservation Trust, Hymettus, Natural England, RSPB.

4) Smooth Snake project partners: Amphibian & Reptile Conservation Trust, Natural England, RSPB.

5) White-tailed Eagles project partners: Forestry Commission Scotland, RSPB, Scottish Natural Heritage, NE, many individual experts.

  • I'm all in favour of restoring species that have been hunted to extinction or accidentally wiped out - assuming that they have a suitable environment to return to. There are probably limits - some of the larger mammals probably wouldn't fare too well! I'm still waiting for the Red Kites to get to where I live, but they're getting closer every year :-)

  • Restoring lost biodiversity, in my opinion, should and does rank as one of the highest RSPB priorities. It is part of the Society's "raison d'etre" (reason to be). The RSPB supported by its science, which is second to none, it now accummulating a very impressive list of biodiversty restoration works.

    On my local reserve at Otmoor a lot of volunteers are currently busy growing devils bit scabious, the food plant of the marsh fritillary butterfly, with the aim of boosting the current population of the plant and hopefully in a few years time reintoducing the butterfly which once flew there many years ago.

    On a wider note George Monbiot in his book "Feral - the frontiers of rewilding", describes the effects of reintroducing the wolf to Yellowstone National Park in the USA. The effects are just amazing, the presence of the wolf has radically altered the behaviour of the deer and other grazing animals. The river banks are now no longer over grazed and enriched by too much dung leading to too much nitrogen seeping into the river water. This in turn has meant an improvement in the fish population. So who would have guessed at the start that reintroducing the wolf would lead to a healthier fish population in the rivers and this is only one of a number of benefits that has resulted.

    The way nature works is just amazing and we must give all the help we can to it to try to put right some of the damage and destruction we inflict on it.    

  • Fantastic effort, on reserves and in the wider countryside, and with an impressive array of partners. One can't help feeling a little more optimism after reading this.