RSPB highlights of 2016

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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

RSPB highlights of 2016

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At this time of year, when the days are still getting shorter, energy levels are low and you are surrounded by people with colds, we all need something to make us feel better. So, to bring early Christmas cheer, here are twelve highlights from the RSPB year. None of these would be achieved without the support of our members and the the dedication of our staff/volunteers working alongside our partners. Thank you for everything that you have done to help.

As you read the stories below, be reminded that, despite all of the pressures, together we make a difference for nature.  And be optimistic that we can do even greater things next year.

Have a great break over Christmas and best wishes for 2017.

RSPB highlights of 2016

1. We continue to grow the number and size of our nature reserves to make more space for nature. In 2016 the RSPB added nearly 1500ha to our owned or leased land - including a new reserve in Scotland, where we will work with the local conservation group to manage the reedbed and open water habitat.  

2. Our reserves provide a home for more than 16,000 species at over 210 sites covering more than 150,000 hectares.  They continue to be an important safe haven for a wide variety of fauna and flora. For example, in 2016, for the second year running, both nightjar and woodlark were at their highest ever numbers on our heathland reserves and 2016 also saw the first evidence of wild breeding of smooth snakes at Aylesbeare – 7 years after the translocation project’s first release.

Image courtesy of Ben Andrew (rspb-images)

3. RSPB wetland reserves continue to support rare breeders and colonisers. Great white egrets fledged 10 young at Avalon Marshes and a pair of little gulls bred at RSPB Loch of Strathbeg and fledged two young. This is the first known successful nesting of little gulls in the UK. A once rare breeder and now brilliant example of a conservation success story, the numbers of booming bitterns on wetland reserves increased again to a record number of 161 at 76 sites.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia 

4. RSPB reserves continue to play a vital role in engaging with the public, increasing connection to nature and educating people. For example Bempton Cliffs on the Yorkshire coast is on track to experience a 10% growth in visitor numbers to their new Seabird Centre – with over 100,000 visitors being greeted face to face by staff and volunteers. This creates a unique opportunity to grow support for nature and build popular support and leverage for our casework and marine campaigns.

Image courtesy of Jesper Mattias (rspb-images)

5. RSPB and partnership species recovery projects continue to play an important role in protecting and enhancing biodiversity. The 2016 national cirl bunting survey has shown the population has increased to over 1000 pairs – 10 times more than in the 1980s. This is thanks to a highly successful reintroduction to Cornwall and decades of partnership working with farmers in Devon, supported by Natural England and grants to recover nature friendly farming.

Image courtesy of Andy Hay (rspb-images)

6. Our important island restoration programme continued this year: St Agnes and Gugh in the Scilly Isles were officially declared rat free in 2016, and the breeding population of Manx shearwater has increased from 22 pairs in 2013 (pre rat eradication) to 73 pairs in 2016 (post rat eradication) with two new locations colonised. The rat eradication phase of the Shiants project was completed in March, and so far no rat sign has been detected, which is bringing cheer to the local community! If all continues to go well we will officially be able to declare these islands rat free in winter 2017.


Image courtesy of Ed Marshall (rspb-images)

7. Our International work continues to yield fantastic results. 2016 saw the 10th anniversary of the hugely successful Albatross Task Force. Bycatch reductions of 80% have been achieved in five out of ten target fisheries and we are well on track to hit this figure in a further two.

Image courtesy of Alastair Wilson (rspb-images)

8. Captive breeding and development of Vulture Safe Zones as part of our vulture programme in Asia also continues, and in 2016 the Indian Government have pledged £200k per annum to the programme, after years of RSPB and BirdLife advocacy work.

Image courtesy of Chris Gomersall (rspb-images)

9. The UK Government has announced the creation of a 23-million-hectare fully-protected marine reserve around Ascension Island. That's roughly the size of the UK! We are delighted that the UK Government has pledged to safeguard at least 50 per cent of Ascension's rich waters, and it is a major success for our work on the UK Overseas Territories.

Image courtesy of Jolene Sim (Ascension Island Government)

10. The 2016 highlight of our work in the Gola forest landscape was the designation of the Gola National Park by the Government of Liberia in September. A variety of livelihoods projects are ongoing, such as building the capacity of over 3,000 farmers in Gola-Sierra Leone in the 70,000ha of forests and farms surrounding the protected areas. This led to the establishment of the first cocoa farmer association, and collection of the first Gola cocoa beans for export in early 2017. Studies have also shown the population of the critically endangered West African Chimp in Gola-Sierra Leone is stable, which is the only example across its entire home range where it is otherwise declining. Finally, we are selling independently verified carbon credits from Gola Rainforest in Sierra Leone towards funding this vitally important tropical forest conservation.


11. Fighting to protect our most precious wildlife sites remains vitally important. In 2016 we felt vindicated and very relieved when a judicial review found in RSPB’s favour after we legally challenged the Scottish Ministers' consents for four large offshore windfarms in the outer firths of the Forth and Tay. These developments would lead to thousands of seabirds including gannets, puffins, kittiwakes and other species being killed every year. Unfortunately, the Scottish Ministers have decided to appeal this decision and so we will be back in court again in 2017.  However, we remain confident our case is robust and hope that our actions will encourage other developments to be sited in less sensitive locations in future.

Image courtesy of Andy Hay (rspb-images)

12. And finally...we saved the laws that protect nature! The importance of rallying support behind campaigns was illustrated by the amazing response to our Defence of the Directives campaign. The RSPB joined forces with over 100 other environmental groups to tell European leaders not to weaken the EU Nature Directives. Over half a million people joined us in responding to the public consultation. At every stage in the debates and discussions since, our politicians have highlighted the vast public support for nature protection that we've shown. On 7th December 2016, we received the fantastic news that the hard work was all worth it – the EU Nature Directives will remain unchanged, and there will be a plan for better implementation and enforcement.


  • Thomo - if you email me, I shall explain.  My email address is

  • Just a question why was my post deleted?



  • Martin, Nightjar doesn't get it! When you and Jonathan Porritt talk about your visions for 2040 and 2050 that is what you’re up against as I’m sure you realise.

    To be clear, I'm shooting neutral but I am against authoritarianism; I also believe that “when discussions are hostile, the odds of change are slight” - Jonathan Haidt ( The Righteous Mind). I think that was amply demonstrated at the HoC debate on DGS and on the Mark Avery blog where the hostility to differing views is liberally scattered.

    I am for bio-diversity, my intuition tells me it’s the only thing I can be can be. I understood this as a kid traipsing around what you now called Sandwell Valley binoculars in hand. Later in life James Lovelock, Porritt and Bjorn Lomborg (the latter in the interests of balance) backed up that intuition with reason.

    To get to 2040/50 we firstly have to somehow get over the major obstacles within the “conservation” community. There is a tribalism there that is massively destructive. It's de-motivating for many external observers and a source of comfort for opposition groups (imho). I note, as does Rob Yorke, the lack of comment amongst “1 million” members on these pages. It must be soul destroying?

  • I assume Phil D's convoluted post is about RSPB, persecution of raptors and grouse shooting. the 'your predecessor' is mark Avery who led the petition against driven grouse shooting. Like many other advocates of driven grouse shooting, Phil D seem to be suggesting it is wrong that RSPB and conservation won't compromise and find 'middle ground'. Unfortunately, that would be difficult. Hen harriers have effectively been eliminated from England - RSPB's engagement with the Defra Hen Harrier plan was in good faith, completely betrayed by grouse shooting which allowed not one pair to breed on a grouse moor. What man y people may not realise is that, far from trying to meet conservation concerns, grouse shooting has intensified significantly over the last 15 years, with more intensive and ruthless management - the upland equivalent of the most intensive, wildlife hostile arable farming.

    So what should RSPB do ? Well, the answer is in Martin's highlights -  the thrilling return of the Great White Egret, a species persecuted to the brink of extinction to decorate ladies hats in the late 19th century - the issue that led to the founding of the RSPB. The wonderful ladies of Didsbury didn't see room for compromise - and after a massive uphill struggle, opinion swung against the fashion and the egrets (and Great Crested Grebe) were saved in the nick of time. So what would the ladies be doing about the persecution to extinction of Hen Harriers in England ? Not a difficult question to answer, I'd suggest.  

  • Martin,

    This is indeed an impressive list which helps to take the edge off my past criticisms of the RSPB.

    I and I'm sure many other disillusioned past members might even consider rejoining if certain issues could be addressed head on.

    Upper most in my mind are the apparent "Conflicts in Conservation" that is evident virtually everywhere you care to look. Your co-respondent Rob Yorke @Blackgull drew attention to a book by the same name on your predecessor’s blog. I haven't read this volume but if his accompanying cryptic comment regarding his Times Nature Notebook column is anything to go by it will articulate the problem far better than I ever could.

    I have given up on your predecessor’s blog having managed to get myself banned on no less than three occasions for simply holding up a mirror to your predecessor’s presentation style. The point I was trying, unsuccessfully, to make was the utter futility and counter productiveness of hostile engagement with opposition to his views. Another book, which I have read, “The Righteous Mind (Why Good People are Divided  by Religion and Politics)” will again explain this scientifically.

    My Point was wholly illustrated at the recent HoC debate on Driven Grouse Shooting where any hoped support from opposition parties was painfully lacking. Were they de-motivated by the level of debate amongst the “conservation” community I wonder? Certainly two young aspiring conservationist (Emily and Phil) expressed similar thoughts in your predecessor’s blog entry of 7th October 2014.

    Not sure what can be done about this highly damaging state of affairs, free speech is paramount but comes with responsibility. What is of concern is the apparent inability to modify behaviour in the light of continuing decline with the word of nature.

    It needs to be sorted and (btw) I’m clearly not up to the job!

  • This is a very very impressive list. Congratulations RSPB. It just demonstrates the ability of the RSPB to get important things done often against the odds and in very difficult circumstances. It reflects so well on the organisation.

  • Many thanks for the questions about the new reserve in Scotland.  We are very excited by this new acquisition, and are working with partners to agree how we announce it and take this forward soon.