August, 2015

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
  • Showcasing our reserves - guest post from Grahame Madge

    Today we have a guest post from Grahame Madge. Grahame tells us about how it's not just birds that benefit on RSPB nature reserves.

    Visit any of our nature reserves  and one of the first things that we hope you notice is the teeming birdlife.

    From the chattering songs of reed and sedge warblers at Marazion Marsh to the mournful wailing of singing red-throated divers on Fetlar, our 214 reserves span the UK from Cornwall to Shetland.

    But the next time you visit an RSPB reserve try to think beyond the birds.

    We do. In fact, it’s a startling statistic that RSPB nature reserves are important for many other species too: thousands of them.

    In fact 97 per cent of species recorded on our reserves aren’t birds. So far we’ve discovered 16,000 species, including a multitude of moths, mosses, mallows, molluscs and mammals, and we think there are many more still to be recorded.

    There is another species for which our reserves are important: man.

    Lots of them, in fact, every year. Many come to enjoy nature. Some also come to share the lessons we learn from managing land on an estate which extends to around four times the size of the Isle of Wight.

    We have developed a large amount of expertise of managing specific habitats and the Society has a national responsibility for some habitats. For example have 13 per cent of the UK’s coastal shingle, more than one sixth of all of the UK’s reedbeds and more than one fifth of all the UK’s native pine woodland – beloved of red squirrels, capercaillie and Scottish crossbills.

    Water vole. Image by Ben Andrew (

    We carry out a lot of innovative habitat restoration and vital management, and sharing this best practise is a big part of what we do.

    With this in mind we have produced a showcase of examples of good management from managing land for butterflies at Winterbourne in Wiltshire, to how we bring nature closer for visitors to Rainham Marshes in the Thames Gateway.

    We also pioneer innovative habitat restoration techniques that provide both good wildlife habitat together with additional benefits, known in the trade as ecosystem services: the much-celebrated win-win that you hear a lot about in conservation.

    At Dovestone in the Peak District , and Medmerry, in Sussex , we are working at an ever-increasing scale, and in partnership with a wide range of other organisations. Much of the innovative thinking on our reserves involves taking into account the projected impacts of climate change in our habitat restoration and management.

    Climate change is a huge threat to nature and mankind alike, but by managing land with climate change in mind, it’s possible to roll with the punch and help nature and people.

    At Dovestone, in partnership with United Utilities, we’re working to re-establish degraded blanket peat bog – an internationally important habitat that also helps to rewet upland landscapes, reduce carbon losses and protect water supplies.

    Along the Channel Coast at Medmerry, in a project led by the Environment Agency, we have set back sea defences, lowering costs of managing flood risk, while creating an ideal habitat for a range of species, even including birds. 

  • Guest post by Mike Clarke: hen harriers and the glorious 12th

    Today, we have a guest post from RSPB Chief Executive Dr Mike Clarke. As the grouse shooting season begins, Mike talks about hen harrier conservation...

    Two weeks ago I was at the CLA Game Fair, talking direct to a range of people from the shooting and countryside sports communities. This weekend I was in Buxton, Derbyshire, celebrating “Hen Harrier Day” with Birders Against Wildlife Crime and hundreds of others from across the country.

    What was fascinating, was that despite the very different audiences (although there were a few people present at both), the topic of hen harriers and how to recover their populations, especially in England, was high on the agenda.

    As you can imagine views on how best to do this were many and varied.

    This Wednesday is the Glorious 12th – the traditional start of the grouse shooting season – and so it only seemed right to reflect on the conversations I've had over the last couple of weeks and update you on what we think should happen next.

    Firstly Defra needs to publish its action plan for wider discussion.

    From what we know of it there are in essence, six points to the draft Action Plan. The first four are all targeted at tackling illegal persecution – this is acknowledged to be the biggest factor limiting England’s hen harrier population.

    The RSPB fully supports these and indeed we are getting on with delivering action to conserve hen harriers on the ground in northern England and southern and eastern Scotland through our EU Life co-funded hen harrier project. We are also working in partnership elsewhere.

    The fifth point is a reintroduction scheme to southern England. We've not been a huge fan of this proposal, as it does nothing to tackle the main limiting factor on England’s hen harriers.

    However, in the interests of finding a plan everyone can support, we have come to the conclusion we would be happy with such a project being progressed, as long as it was within the IUCN guidelines on reintroductions.

    Female hen harrier. Image by Andy Hay (

    This wouldn't be an alternative to tackling persecution – indeed, the project would be most unlikely be successful unless persecution was addressed – but if taken forward alongside the first four points of the action plan, it could increase the nesting range of harriers in England.

    But, it is critical that a re-introduction element does not distract us from getting hen harriers settling and breeding successfully in the uplands of England.

    Our view on the sixth point – a brood management scheme – remains unchanged. We think there are significant legal, ethical and practical questions to answer. But we’ve not said never to brood management.

    All we’ve said is that there must be some level of reasonable national recovery before it kicks in. There’s two principle reasons for this.

    The first is purely biological.

    There are currently barely a handful of hen harriers nesting in England. It bizarrely seems to get forgotten in much of the debate, but the idea of hen harriers impacting grouse numbers in England is currently entirely hypothetical.

    But we must acknowledge it can happen under some circumstances as was shown at Langholm moor, but currently there is no grouse moor in England that can claim hen harriers are adversely impacting on grouse numbers – there simply aren't enough harriers.

    With that in mind, it seems daft to start the recovery of the hen harrier by prioritising a predation reduction scheme over all the other pressing points in the plan, especially as we know that diversionary feeding works very well!

    The second reason is perhaps less concrete, but just as important – trust.

    Trust is a hard thing to come by and in this area it’s sorely lacking. With an industry often in denial that there is an issue to be dealt with and attacks on the RSPB from some sectors, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that there is a lack of trust that a brood management scheme could be delivered.

    After all the law says you shouldn’t interfere with harriers, but we know it happens. Only today we have confirmed news that Annie, a hen harrier tagged as part of the Langholm Demonstration Project, has been illegally shot in Scotland – and awful and timely reminder that this is far from a hypothetical argument.

    A reasonable national recovery of hen harriers before brood management kicks in is vital not just for biological reasons, but to provide evidence that the grouse shooting industry can be trusted to work within the law and deliver on its promises.

    In the interests of fairness, I should point out that the Moorland Association did tell me at the Game Fair that they considered many of the public comments made about the RSPB “inaccurate and unhelpful”.

    It is perhaps worth at this juncture considering what the Government in England must do now.

    First they have a duty under EU conservation law (The ‘Birds’ Directive) to maintain the populations of hen harriers across their natural range. They must also declare Special Protection Areas (SPA’s) for them, and ensure they are in Favourable Conservation Status (FCS).

    Neither is the case at present and both require concerted action inside and outside of SPAs to effectively deliver these requirements. In England, two SPA’s (Bowland fells & North Pennine Moors) were designated for hen harriers. Both comprise significant areas of grouse moor.

    So addressing the conservation problems on these moors is surely essential. That includes looking calmly at the latest evidence on illegal persecution and habitat management (e.g. managed burning, drainage) practised on these uplands, to ensure they provide what harriers need.

    Given the paucity of harriers in England, even on the SPA’s declared for them, it is clear work needs to be done across the whole of the North of England.

    The grouse moor owners say (and I paraphrase), we will work with you to help harriers but only if we can have brood management-now, and certainly before harriers become an impediment to our sport. We say, lets have some harriers please, and the best way to get them is to obey the law.

    If numbers do build up, deploy diversionary feeding, and only when the population is on the road to recovery, and subject to the strongest legal safeguards and transparency, might we accept a Government led scheme using brood management, whose ultimate aim is really to avoid deep impacts on grouse numbers (stocks). Depending on your viewpoint we are still light years apart-or tantalisingly close to a deal. But surely moorland managers see the need to build public confidence in their activities?

    But before we start to confidence build-as we surely should let’s get the Defra proposal out there in the public domain.

    There’s too many conversations going on about it, without most of us having seen the full specific proposals which are being advanced. Let’s put the terms for a proposed brood management scheme on the table, and we can all have the debate in an informed way, rather than dealing in rumours and supposition.

    And I don’t mean the mechanics of rearing birds in captivity-important though that is.

    No, we need to agree how we get FCS on our Upland SPA’s, recover harrier numbers and have a system that roots out illegal activity, and builds long term public trust. It could trial a pilot ‘licensing’ system, to show what can be done, and yes if harrier numbers rise sufficiently to warrant it, introduce brood mangement.

    The 12th will come and go and the grouse shooting season will kick off again. I hear there might not actually be much shooting as grouse numbers are well down due to the weather. Its a lesson that no matter what man does, in the end the weather is ultimately the biggest determining factor for most birds, even above the role of predation.

    But one thing is for sure. As I said at the Hen Harrier event in Buxton, the RSPB will never ever give up the fight for our hen harriers. Protection of birds of prey is one of those issues that runs through this organisation like the pattern in a stick of rock.

    We’re doing everything we can to help broker a deal, for the benefit of harriers and the other species of wildlife which rely on our iconic upland habitats. But we are absolutely clear what we still consider unacceptable.

    Dialogue has its place and is undoubtedly important, but we’ve been talking for years with little measurable movement towards sustainable land management on driven grouse moor areas.

    It’s time to act.

  • Hen harriers and YFTB (again!)

    In this guest post from Jeff Knott, RSPB Head of Nature Policy, he talks about his visit to the CLA Game Fair, the fortunes of hen harriers and the latest from You Forgot the Birds:

    I’ve just got back from a weekend spent at the CLA Game Fair.

    While every year there are some challenging discussions, this is an event I genuinely look forward to. The opportunity to engage with the shooting community in all its variety is always fascinating and useful.

    Positive discussion

    This year, in addition to useful chats with organisations such as the Moorland Association, CLA and GWCT, I was particularly pleased to have the opportunity for a positive discussion with Richard Ali, Chief Executive of BASC, on Radio 4’s Today programme.

    This was a classic example of why I enjoy the Game Fair. We didn’t agree on everything, but we had a good exchange of views in a respectful and professional way. He even gave me a bag of their new grouse flavoured crisps!

    Latest from You Forgot the Birds

    All of that makes it even more disappointing to see the latest missive from You Forgot The Birds (YFTB) issued today. For previous from this recently formed group, see here and here.

    This time the allegation is that RSPB is causing hen harrier nests to fail through excessive human interference. These allegations are extremely serious. If YFTB (or indeed anyone) has any actual evidence of disturbance, whatever the source, they should go to the Police immediately.

    But, as far as I’m concerned, our staff and volunteers monitoring and protecting hen harriers on the ground are some of the most dedicated, professional and brilliant conservationists in the world. They live and breathe hen harrier conservation and their commitment to saving hen harriers is unquestioned.

    Male hen harrier. Image by Andy Hay (

    I know many of the individuals involved personally and their passion though the ups and downs of a hen harrier breeding season is unmatched. I’m proud to call them my colleagues. All of us who care about wildlife owe them a massive debt of gratitude.

    RSPB nature reserves across the UK provided a home to 49 pairs of hen harriers in 2014, about 8% of the national population. These pairs are found on that tiny percentage of the UK's uplands where the RSPB has reserves.

    This is good, but we want it to be even better.

    Five nests in England (four at Bowland and one on our Geltsdale reserve) failed this year after males disappeared while out hunting. This is extremely unusual and a real worry.

    While we may never know what happened to these five individual birds, it’s hard to see how anything happening at the nest could cause the male to disappear while away from the nest, but leave the females unaffected and patiently sitting on their eggs, or brooding their young whilst under the protective gaze of our volunteers and staff.

    But I want to remain positive.

    The RSPB’s EU Life-funded hen harrier project is a cross-border England and Scotland project running from 2014-2019 on hen harriers. It clearly sets out to tackle what a government report says is the biggest issue facing our hen harriers – illegal persecution. We will get there.

    And this Sunday a group of people will come together, organised by Birders Against Wildlife Crime, in the Goyt Valley and at other locations around Britain, as part of “Hen Harrier Day”.

    This will be a wonderful show of grass roots support for these iconic and threatened birds and it’s this that shows the way forward. We encourage everyone who cares about these beautiful birds to take part and attend if you can.

    I’ll be there in the Goyt and hope to see many of you there.