June, 2016

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
  • The conservationist's dilemma: an update on the science, policy and practice of the impact of predators on wild birds (3)

    I spent half-term with the family in the sun in the Cairngorms National Park.  As we have two of our most iconic reserves there, Abernethy and Insh Marshes, I was keen to pay a visit.  It was great to hear that the number of lekking male capercaillie at Abernethy has increased this year but alas, we failed to see any on our (very) early morning drive.  We wait with trepidation to see how the June weather turns out as our research shows a strong correlation between poor productivity and wet Junes.  At least Scotland seems to have had the better of the weather this month.

    The visit to Insh Marshes was my first.  Lying on the floodplain of the River Spey, the site is special for its breeding waders (snipe, curlew, lapwing, redshank), rare plants (eg string sedge) and invertebrates.  It's a magical place. The floodplain still has many characteristics of a naturally-functioning system and, as I saw on site, in the wet winter of 2015 one of the tributaries has cut a new path, creating dynamic wet features alive with wildlife. 

     It’s an interesting year for Insh as we are undertaking a study of lapwing productivity.  In recent years we have noted a decline in their productivity but previous research has not been able to identify the main cause.  This year we have a dedicated researcher monitoring the nests and the chicks to find out what happens.  The initial results show that many early nests were lost during the night with significant fox activity identified on the trail cameras and badgers also present.  We are now actively considering whether we need to start fox control there next year as the flood regime means it isn’t practical to install an anti-predator fence.

    As always, our approach to the issue of predation is based on evidence and guided by our Council agreed policy.  

    Our 2007 review of the evidence of the impacts of predation on wild birds concluded that generalist predators, such as foxes and corvids, can sometimes reduce the population levels of ground-nesting birds (such as waders, seabirds and gamebirds), and a more recent (soon to be published) review confirms these findings.  By contrast, the evidence that breeding songbird numbers are limited by predation is weak. Rather, there is compelling evidence – some of it experimental – that changes in farming practices have led to the declines of many farmland songbirds, and emerging evidence that numbers of some woodland songbirds have declined due to long-term changes in woodland structure.

    Deciding to use lethal predator control is something we never take lightly.

    Our approach means that we seek evidence of a problem, check whether there is a non-lethal solution, make sure that the killing of predators would be legal, effective and not harm their own conservation status.  If we can satisfy ourselves of all these things then we can make a decision.  As in previous years (see here and here), I have included tables below which show the lethal vertebrate control undertaken on reserves (which now number 210 sites covering more than 150,000 hectares across the UK).  Some of the numbers are higher than in previous years as the dataset covers a longer period (17 months) due to a change in the annual reporting schedule. 

    Finally, it is worth remembering that non-lethal approaches, although not realistic in some circumstances, can be very effective.  To illustrate this point, I have included a graph to show how well anti-predator fences are performing.  We now have fences at 28 reserves protecting breeding waders over 874 ha. At sites with anti-predator fences, lapwing productivity has been consistently above that necessary for population maintenance (0.6 chicks fledged per pair), even though at most sites only a proportion of the suitable habitat is protected by the fence (Fig. 1).

    This is a fantastic result and a great return for the effort invested by our ecologists and reserve teams.


    Vertebrates controlled on RSPB reserves in 2014-15

    Below are tables summarising the vertebrate control undertaken by RSPB and our contractors on reserves during the period 1 April 2014 to 31 August 2015.  The recording period is longer than in previous years as we altered our annual reporting timetable.  The extended period means that larger numbers of vertebrates were killed than in the previous 12 month reported period.  Only reserves where control was undertaken during the year have been included.  Vertebrate control commissioned by third parties as part of existing rights is not included here.

    a) For conservation reasons

    NB Feral means released birds outside their normal range.

    b) For other reasons


    Fig. 1. Mean lapwing productivity at RSPB reserves with anti-predator fencing, at which productivity has been regularly monitored. Bars show + one standard error. The figures above the bars show the number of reserves with anti-predator fencing, at which productivity has been regularly monitored.

    And to close, here's another gratuitous picture of the stunning Insh Marshes (credit Andy Hay, rspb-images.com)


  • In praise of Springwatch

    I had a strange conversation about Springwatch when I was at the Cereals Show yesterday in Duxford.  I was there alongside our advisors talking about wildlife friendly farming (and anything else that cropped up - mainly Brexit or football). In passing, someone said that their son was obsessed with Springwatch and was distraught at the prospect of the show finishing.  I empathised, my children get distraught when the latest series of The Next Step finishes.

    Later, I went along to be in the audience for the final recording of Springwatch Unsprung - to be aired tonight.  I have to be honest, I rarely get the chance to watch the show and was there mainly to be supportive of the great work that our Minsmere team have done, led by the brilliant Adam Rowlands.  But, it was also a bit of voyeurism as I was keen to find out what it takes to put on a show like Springwatch.

    Minsmere last night was looking its best and the Bittern Hide kindly delivered a bittern and a marsh harrier in the 15 minutes I had before the show.

    We watched the main show, oohed and ahhed as the sparrowhawk chicks hatched.  Then, as we queued to go into the Unsprung shed, I found myself chatting to a family about how enthralled they had been by the series and how it had motivated them to get active.  Seeing the incredible Chris Packham in action and observing the response from the audience (both in the room but also those interacting from home), I think the penny finally dropped: this programme is doing a fantastic job of inspiring people to get interested in nature but also to get active through their Do Something Great Campaign.

    So, unlike some other TV nature programmes, I left feeling confident that not only has Springwatch been doing nature a great service by inspiring action but also that those young people distraught by the programme leaving our TV screens will find productive ways of filling the void.  I am sure that many will become the environmental leaders of tomorrow.  

    Applause, applause to the Springwatch team (and, of course, to the wildlife Mecca that is RSPB Minsmere).

    Inside the Springwatch Unsprung Shed before filming started.  Everyone livened up when Chris Packham turned up - especially entomologist George McGavin seen here sitting on the sofa.

  • To fish or not to fish in the EU? A guest blog from Dr Euan Dunn

    There has been a lot of codswallop said during the course of the EU Referendum campaign and some of it has focused on the Common Fisheries Policy.  So on the eve of Nigel Farage leading a pro-Brexit flotilla up the Thames, (see here) I am delighted to welcome a guest blog from Dr Euan Dunn MBE, Principal Marine Advisor for the RSPB.  Euan has huge experience of understanding and influencing the interactions between fisheries and marine birds, nationally and internationally.  So, when it comes to assessing the implications of the the EU Referendum for fisheries and the marine environment, Euan is well placed to help us separate fish-fact from fish-fiction.  


    The sight of a flotilla of UK vessels sailing up the Thames to highlight fishermen’s support for leaving the EU and its Common Fisheries Policy may stir the hearts of a nation with a visceral attachment to the sea and to the British staple of fish and chips.  On the face of it, there’s a simple logic to repatriating our fishing waters and unhitching ourselves from a Brussels-crafted policy described by the House of Lords European Union Committee in 2008 as having, ‘one of the most dismal reputations of any EU policy’. 

    But much has changed since the Lords’ recommendations for making the CFP fit for purpose.  With its 2013 reform (spearheaded by the UK), the CFP is heading in the right direction and our hard-working fishermen are benefiting, along with those of other Member States. After decades of overfishing, North Sea cod is recovering strongly and the majority of assessed North Atlantic stocks are now considered to be sustainably fished.

    Fishing boats off the Isle of Skye waiting for the outcome of the EU Referendum? (Credit, Euan Dunn)

    The new CFP also made an unprecedented shift away from regarding our waters as just a factory floor for the fishing industry, towards managing them as a marine ecosystem.  The obligation to lighten the environmental footprint of commercial fishing, such as tackling the needless bycatch of seabirds in fishing gears, has been written into statute.

    But, if the EU marine cake is looking healthier, many UK fishermen still crave a bigger slice ie a larger quota of fish.  The UK’s current share is the result of a settlement dating back to the dawn of the CFP in 1983.  And in fact we came out of it pretty well with some 30% of the EU’s total catch, even though we only have 13% of the total EU sea area.  This quota is then divided between the big offshore operators and the small-scale inshore boats, with the latter rightly crying foul that they get too little, but this inequality is purely in the gift of the UK Government to remedy, and has nothing whatsoever to do with Brussels. 

    So the fundamental question arises: would UK fishermen be better off if we left the EU and ring-fenced our own waters?  Part of the answer lies in the fallacy of ‘ring-fence’.  As is often said, fish have no passports, crossing borders with impunity. The western mackerel stock undertakes a formidable migration from the Iberian peninsula to the arctic, while herring, cod and other species are also highly mobile ‘straddling stocks’.  So it’s fanciful to think that UK waters, unlike an isolated outpost like Iceland, translate into bespoke UK fish that we can herd for our own use. To enjoy the access we have to fish today, a UK outside of the EU would have to negotiate bilateral access agreements with a host of Member States as hard-headed as we are about securing a, let’s say, "squid pro quo".  And the time taken to broker this would create major uncertainty for the industry and its market.  The tortuous agreement the EU negotiates annually with Norway would have to be replicated by the UK with all its fishing neighbours.

    Moreover, a scenario of UK waters for UK fishing vessels poses an immense challenge of policing our fishing limits, this at a time when our enforcement agency, the Marine Management Organisation (MMO), has suffered swingeing budget cuts (see here).  We would have to aspire to Norway which invests heavily in its fisheries control and penalises malpractice heavily, so much so that our skippers fish warily in its waters. Norway, like Iceland, is also part of the European Economic Area (EEA) which a post-Brexit UK would have to seek to re-join (if the rest of the EU agreed). This just piles the pressure on our fishing industry which exports 45% of its catch, four-fifths of which goes to EU countries. 

    Commercial fishing is a dangerous trade; working the sea calls for a special kind of commitment.  In many ways, our fishermen have been the victims of decades of mismanagement but the multi-national waters they ply are showing healthy signs of recovery under an ambitious new CFP.  As the flotilla steers a course up the Thames, its crews might well reflect that arguably greater hidden dangers lurk in the stormy waters they are supposedly leaving, were they to cast adrift  from their EU shipmates.