September, 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
  • Asian hornet alert and a call for help

    In response to the news of the arrival of the Asian Hornet, my colleague Paul Walton, who leads our work on invasive non-native species, offers this reaction.

    Surely the social insects – bees, ants, wasps and termites – are among the most astounding of all species. In these animals we have socially cooperative rearing of young, the ordered division of labour within a colony, and reproduction restricted to a small number of queens and reproductive males, with the majority of individuals living and working alongside their sisters purely in the interests of the colony collective. It almost defies belief.

    Image courtesy of Jean Haxaire

    Not only this, but these insects are of critical ecological importance as pollinators, soil engineers and as food for other animals. And beyond that, the economic significance of crop pollination services by bees alone stands at more than £200 million per year in the UK[1]. Little wonder that, for many, these insects have come to embody and symbolise our affection and concern for our natural environment.

    The human impact on the natural world is profound and, often, bewildering. Consensus has emerged, however, around the recognition of five key basic drivers: pollution; climate change; habitat degradation; overexploitation; and the impact of invasive non-native species.

    The last of these is perhaps the most difficult to grasp. Is adding new species to the environment really such an issue? The answer is perhaps not in every single instance but, collectively, most emphatically yes. Natural barriers to species dispersal – oceans, currents, deserts, mountains etc. – exist across the world and force species, habitats and ecosystems to develop differently in different regions. We end up with antelope as plains grazers in Africa, and kangaroos as plains grazers in Australia - and this effect plays out across the living world. A high proportion of living diversity, our shared natural inheritance, is generated and maintained by this simple effect. However, human beings are now moving species across these barriers, either deliberately via trade and transport, or accidentally as hitchhikers or stowaways. The loss of species and disruption of habitats on a massive scale is the result.

    Research suggests that, sometime around 2004, containers of pottery from China arrived at the port of Bordeaux. Hidden in the shipment were queen Asian hornets, native of South Asia. The insects escaped into the wild and started to reproduce. In just 5 years there were several thousand nests in the Bordeaux area, the species had established in northern Spain by 2010, and by the end of 2015 Asian hornets were reported over most of France.

    Now, the species has arrived in the UK, with workers spotted in Gloucestershire for the first time this September. A nest has not been found yet, but intensive efforts are underway to locate it.

    Is this an issue? Based on assessments so far, and evidence from France, it’s certainly likely to be an important one. Asian hornets feed, quite naturally, on other insects. This includes honey bees, so critically important as pollinators and, more significantly from a conservation standpoint, native species such as bumblebees. The introduction of new predators can have major impacts on native wildlife. We do not know for sure what these might be in reality, but the potential for major ecological, not to mention socio-economic impacts is real.

    There is hope, however. Working under the GB Non-native Species Strategy, officials are working to find and eradicate the hornets before they can spread. If the nests can be detected at the early stages of invasion, there is a real chance that we can prevent the establishment of Asian hornets in the UK – and thus defend wildlife.

    A key element of that task will be maximum vigilance from everyone who spends time out of doors. The more eyes we have looking out for Asian hornets, and reporting any potential sightings to the GB Non-native Species Secretariat, the higher our chances of success in containing the spread. The Secretariat is calling for people to report potential sightings and, in particular, to send in photographs of any suspected Asian hornets that are seen.

    Suspected sightings can be reported by email to:

    or through the online reporting form

    Officials are also developing an Asian Hornet app for recording which will be available on the App Store shortly.

    Links to ID sheets and posters are here:

    Three crucial considerations before we all proceed with our eyes open for this new arrival.

    First, make sure to check the identification information before sending in a report.  Asian hornets are actually somewhat smaller than the native European hornet and can be distinguished by their yellow ‘feet’, orange ‘face’ and dark thorax and abdomen.  They can be confused with native hornets, hoverflies and wood wasps. 

    Secondly, remember that this is absolutely not a call to despise or destroy all wasps and hornets. Any suspected Asian hornets should be reported, not tackled, and any native species should be left in peace. Though these native insects might irritate us sometimes, and occasionally sting, they play important roles in our ecosystems and are valuable wildlife species in their own right. 

    Thirdly, we should all remember that it is not the Asian hornets’ fault that they are here and may cause damage. These insects are simply doing what comes naturally. This is an entirely human-generated problem, and it is up to us to fix it if we can.

    In the end, the crucial lesson is that we must all be much smarter about how we move animals and plants around the world. If we are not, problems like the Asian hornet can only get worse in the future. For now, though, we all have a chance to play a part in stopping the spread of one problem species in our country, protecting the amazing diversity of wildlife around us. Thanks for your help.


  • RSPB reaction to news about more license applications to control buzzards

    It’s only just over a month since I wrote about the news that Natural England had issued a licence permitting the control of up to 10 buzzards to “prevent serious damage to young pheasants”.

    At the time I said that “the decision sets a worrying precedent. What will be next?” Well now we have an indication of what the future might look like – the prospect of more legalised killing of buzzards. Yesterday, Natural England announced that there are four more licence applications in the system.  While we do not, as yet, know how Natural England will respond to these licenses, my concern is that there could be four more places where native birds of prey could be killed in order to maximize the number of introduced gamebirds available for commercial shooting. Four more instances where a flawed policy framework could allow public interest to be trumped by commercial concern.

    Image courtesy of Tim Melling

    This is all happening despite the continued persecution of raptorsIn Victorian times, buzzards were in a precarious position having been shot, trapped and hunted from all but the most remote parts of the country.

    However, legal protection meant that the buzzard population was able to recover and it has slowly spread to many of its old haunts, where its soaring spectacle is admired by the many rather than the few.

    So why, through current policy and law, are we allowing this still-recovering magnificent bird to be legally killed? In order to protect a private business concern. To protect a few of the tens of millions of non-native gamebirds that are released into the countryside each year.

    This to me seems like a perversion of the licensing system. The system of licensing we have in this country is a good one. It sets a series of strict tests which must be met before the usual legal protection of a species can be put aside. However, any system is only as good as the way it is used. Killing a native and still recovering bird of prey to allow a few extra non-native gamebirds, dubiously classed as ‘livestock’ to justify the killing is wrong.  Some will once again try to portray the RSPB as being ‘anti-shooting’. We're not. We are anti the killing of a magnificent and protected bird of prey for no good reason.

    It’s striking that other birds of prey, most notably England’s hen harriers, are in the situation buzzards were 100 years ago – persecuted to the brink of extinction. Indeed the situation is more dire for hen harriers today than it ever was for buzzards. Something has gone terribly wrong in priority setting when the Government’s conservation agency is spending more time thinking about whether to grant licenses to kill a recovering raptor species, than it is trying to end the illegal killing of another.

    I’d also like clarification about the process by which future licences will be monitored. The way previous licenses have been issued leaves a lot to be desired. The ability to take joy in seeing soaring buzzards across the UK should be available to all of us. Taking it away, even in small part to benefit a commercial interest, should be subject to public debate. That clearly isn’t happening here. Transparency is a must if this isn’t to look like a shady back room deal.

    And just think what this could mean for the Police trying to tackle the illegal killing of buzzards. Every time they get a call about someone shooting a buzzard they would have to consider whether it’s under licence or not? Or has the licence holder exceeded the number of buzzards they can kill? The deterrent effect of legal protection has been slashed. The last thing we want is open season on buzzards, making the policing of the illegal killing we know still goes on, extremely difficult.

    I have said it before and I’ll say it again. Reaching for the gun should not be the first course of action in perceived conflicts with nature. That’s not the sort of society I want to live in and I will be writing to the minister today to say exactly that, and to seek reform.

  • What do the high brown fritillary, bog hoverfly and corn buttercup have in common?

    Today, our diverse, eclectic and brilliant sector comes together to report on the state of our nature.

    Following on from the inaugural State of Nature report in 2013, 51 organisations have worked together to compile information about what is happening to wildlife populations on land and at sea across the UK, on our Crown Dependencies and Overseas Territories.

    We shall launch the State of Nature 2016 reports and showcase the results at events in London and Edinburgh today and in Cardiff and Belfast over the next fortnight.

    This is not a simple update of the 2013 report because we have covered more species and done new work.  This includes looking at short term, as well as long term, trends and assessing the most important factors that are affecting species populations.

    As a nation of nature lovers, we should be proud that we are able to provide such a comprehensive assessment fuelled primarily by data collected by a dedicated and superb army of volunteers.  It is estimated that 7.5 million hours of volunteer time goes into recording nature in the UK each year.

    Yet, the headlines serve as a stark reminder that, despite our collective endeavour, we have failed to halt the decline of UK biodiversity...

    ...56% of the 4,000 species we assessed have declined since 1970

    ...15% of species are either extinct or threatened with extinction  

    ...species abundance has fallen by 16% since 1970

    ...priority species have declined by 67% since 1970

    As a 1970 baby, it is painfully clear that the report catalogues declines that have happened in my lifetime but it is against a historical context of even greater loss: new science has shown that we are among the most nature-depleted countries in the world.

    The situation is not all doom and gloom.  There are signs (even if not statistically significant) that the rate of loss is slowing.  In the reports for England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales we’ve included loads of examples that illustrate  how members of the partnership, often working with landowners, businesses and Government agencies, have tried to stop the rot, protect the best and restore the rest.  This shows that conservation works.  In many cases, we know what needs to be done, have demonstrated the art of the possible and simply need to get more people to act.

    Image courtesy of David Slate (

    And this is where governments have a crucial part to play.  They are best placed to make it easier for people to do the right thing through incentives and prevent people from doing harm through regulation and penalties.

    Yet, Brexit has created uncertainty about the future of nature conservation laws  (the majority of which flow from the European Union) and incentives (wildlife friendly farming schemes in the Common Agriculture Policy supply about 75% of the total incentives available for biodiversity).

    The new Environment Secretary, Andrea Leadsom, will speak at the London event (alongside Sir David Attenborough) and I look forward to her response to our report.  This has to be the moment when the UK Government commits to being a world leader on the environment, and backs up words with the action necessary to fulfil the manifesto commitment to restore biodiversity in 25 years.

    To help make that a reality, we’re calling on all MPs to support this ambition, and sign a Pledge for the Environment.   Together with a number of other NGOs we’ve created a petition for you to sign to encourage your MP to adopt the pledge here.

    But we haven’t stopped there.

    Whether it’s getting involved in biological surveys, volunteering at nature reserves, or reducing our own footprint on the planet we want to encourage people to do what they can.  To help this we have produced this infographic (here) which provides a brief summary of the State of Nature 2016 and concludes by setting out five actions that people can take: count, volunteer, manage, campaign and live sustainably.  Under each of these sections there are links to just some of the projects that members of the State of Nature partnership are offering.

    We hope that masses of people will get involved so please copy this infographic to your friends and contacts.

    As the old Swahili proverb says, haba na haba hujaza kibaba – little by little the pot gets filled.

    And finally, the answer to my headline question is that these three species are amongst the 1057 species that were assessed against IUCN red list criteria as being at risk of extinction from Great Britain.  So far assessments are available for about 8000 plants, fungi, lichens or invertebrates.  There are, of course, species from other groups, e.g. (turtle dove), which are also at risk.  

    Let's work together to get these species off these lists.