April, 2017

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 state of 'our' birds at home and further afield

    Today, State of UK Birds 2016 is published.  It's a fabulous publication collated by a partnership of government bodies and charities based on data collected by many thousands of volunteers who give their time for free.

    Through these assessments, we work out changes in bird populations to help us assess which species are most in need of conservation and whether existing programmes are working.

    As ever, there is good news (for species which have been subject to major species recovery programmes such as bittern, cirl bunting, golden eagle, nightjar and woodlark) and bad news (especially for upland species such as curlew, summer migrants such as nightingale and seabirds such as puffin - which is why the RSPB is now refocusing our species recovery effort on these three groups).

    The report also reminds us of our responsibilities for wildlife including on UK Overseas Territories and how albatrosses and St Helena plovers have benefited from conservation action.

    Having just visited two UK Overseas Territories in the Caribbean, I've been able to see how targeted conservation action can tackle some of the threats that these special places are facing.  The work (supported by Defra's Darwin Plus fund) we are doing to control rats on Turks and Caicos will not only benefit the endemic rock iguana but also ground-nesting bird species such as the Antillean nighthawk (a close relative of the European nightjar).

    While these places may not have the network of volunteers that provide the data in the UK, the passion and dedication to improve the natural world is as high in the Caribbean as it is in the UK and the RSPB will continue to do what we can to help our local partners.

    So a big thank you to all of you that provided data for the report or helped deliver the conservation successes.  If you feel motivated to get involved, please do think about taking part in the surveys listed at the back of the report or join conservation organisations both in the UK and on our Overseas Territories.  

    'Our' birds need all the help they can get.   

    The Antillean Nighthawk on Little Water Cay in the Turks and Caicos is vulnerable to predation by non-native invasive rats (photo by Elizabeth Radford) 

    Nightjar roosting at RSPB HQ (Andy Hay, rspb-images.com).  This is a species whose conservation status has moved from red to amber. 

  • How to remain beautiful by nature?

    The strapline of the Turks and Caicos archipelago, one of UK Overseas Territories in the Caribbean, is “beautiful by nature” and it is easy to see why.

    With vast expanse of natural habitat remaining, it is one of the places where EO Wilson’s Half-Earth hypothesis could work – putting aside half of the land and sea for nature.  Theoretically, Turks & Caicos is already on its way to the Convention on Biological Diversity target for at least 17% of land to be well managed for nature by 2020 (even though it is still not a signatory), with about 25% designated as National Park or Nature Reserve.

    Yet, scratch the surface and there are problems.  The islands have only recently recovered politically from the upheaval associated with the UK suspending the Islands' self-government following allegations of ministerial corruption in 2009-12. 

    Economically, this is an island dominated by tourism where revenues account for 85% of its GDP.  With no real income tax, stamp duty on development is a big deal and so there is tension on the need to generate funds through development while also protecting the natural environment which is the attraction for tourists.  This has been demonstrated by a previous government's decision to sell of land within National Parks for development.

    So, it has been so refreshing to see our partner, the Turks & Caicos National Trust, develop a sustainable income model through charging for guided tours around its sites, including the fabulous Little Water Cay, home to the endemic, but endangered Rock Iguana. 

    Male rock iguana on Little Water Cay - the subject of the Darwin Plus grant

    To keep Turks & Caicos “beautiful by nature”, the government and NGOs like the National Trust will need to find ways to develop low impact sustainable tourism within the national parks and help realise the value of nature for the country’s economy.  This will take time and investment in protected area management.  This is why UK Government support through grants such as Defra’s Darwin Plus fund are so important. 

    As was demonstrated at our launch on Friday of the "Save the Iguana Islands of Turks and Caicos" project (described below), these projects can bring international and local partners together and attract political support to provide targeted nature conservation action.  It was the same with European grants, such as BEST and MPASSE (from which Turks & Caicos has also benefited), yet once we leave the European Union, UK Overseas Territories will no longer be able to benefit from such funding. 

    The RSPB remains committed to working with our partners on the six UK Overseas Territories in the Caribbean, and we trust that the UK Government will find ways to maintain and replace lost grant funding to provide the much-needed impetus to invest in the fabulous nature of territories for which we remain accountable.


    Below, Elizabeth Radford (RSPB’s Senior UK Overseas Territories Officer for the Caribbean), describes how UK Government grant has galvanised local and international partners to restore magical islands for the globally important Rock Iguana...

    Male rock iguana in background with female in foreground

    Cyclura carinata – the iconic Turks and Caicos Rock iguana has always been something of a media star in Turks and Caicos, a reptile that most Islanders are rightly proud of. Last Friday it was once again the centre of attention as a cross sector audience from tourism, nature, heritage, business and agricultured gathered to launch a new project focusing on its conservation.

     Endemic to Turks and Caicos and a couple of island cays in the Bahamas, this magnificent lizard was once numerous across the islands.  Today it is classed as critically endangered as it has been reduced to less than 5% of its original range. This is due to a combination of development (trampling and severe habitat modification) and the introduction of predators, mainly cats who eat hatchlings and dogs who will attack iguanas of any size. Rats can also be a problem as they compete for the largely vegetarian food source and will predate eggs. The magnitude of this threat cannot be understated; in the 1970s 15,000 iguana were lost over five years from Pine Cay when hotel workers bought cats and dogs to the island.

    Thanks to an international partnership and funding from Darwin Plus, a new project; “Saving the Iguana Islands of Turks and Caicos,” intends to help to secure this species on two island cays that hold 75% of the population. The first Little Water Cay is known locally as Iguana Island, is the premier wildlife tourism site of TCI and managed by the National Trust, the second Big Ambergris Cay, is a highly developed private island with more development planned.  The TCI National Trust, San Diego Zoo Global, RSPB and the TCI Departments of Environment and Coastal Resources and Agriculture will work together on developing biosecurity plans for these islands to prevent the (re) invention of predators. This is particularly critical for Big Ambergris Cay which does not yet have rats or cats on island. The responses of populations of iguanas and other reptiles to human impacts (visitor numbers and development) will also be monitored during the project – as will feral cat activity on Little Water Cay, to inform our understanding of the impacts of these threats for future management plans. Finally around 10 other offshore cays will be investigated for presence of rodents using a rapid rat detection methodology which will be developed through the project.

    On Friday at the project launch, ministers (yes two!), boat operators, government officials, hoteliers, media outlets and conservationist all came out to support the partners.  It’s worth reflecting not only on the power of the Darwin Initiative to enable innovative conservation projects by providing finance, but also of its tremendous convening power,  bringing together international and local partners from different disciplines and across several  government departments. This is critical for project profile and future sustainability.  Thank you Darwin Plus; a crucial and central fund for global biodiversity conservation efforts in the UK Overseas Territories.  

  • Good news for a Friday: revealing the wildlife wonders of Tristan da Cunha

    Today I’m delighted to report the good news of the successful completion of a joint marine discovery expedition to the UK Overseas Territory of Tristan da Cunha, in partnership with National Geographic Pristine Seas and the Tristan da Cunha Government. Jonathan Hall, Head of our UK Overseas Territories team, tells the story below...


    After a 3,000 mile round-trip in an ex-Japanese naval training vessel, over 100 dive surveys, 23 deep underwater camera drops, 30 offshore floating camera deployments, shark and seal satellite-tagging, seabird counting, camera-drone flying and some wonderful hosting by the Tristan da Cunha community, our 5-week partnership expedition to the world’s most remote inhabited island, lead by the National Geographic Pristine Seas programme, has been successfully completed.

    Image courtesy of Jonathan Hall.

    Seven days sail due west of Cape Town in the middle of the South Atlantic, this expedition was launched in order to support the 270-person Tristanian community in their visionary commitment to create a Tristan-lead and science-based marine protection regime to cover their entire 750,000km² maritime zone by 2020. An archipelago of volcanoes looming straight out of the South Atlantic, their enormously rich waters are home to a staggering array of species. Mountainsides we were fortunate enough to climb resounded to the beak-snaps of big fluffy albatross chicks and, on the warm days, an incredible musty aroma rising from the thousands of seabird burrows which honeycomb the slopes. The shoreline meanwhile was awash with moulting northern rockhopper penguins, whooping subantarctic fur seal adults, and, on some beaches, their thousands of seal pups, baa-ing like lambs and play-fighting in the surf. Underwater, giant kelp in beautiful golden forests ringed the islands, before the seafloor dropped away into deep and unknown depths.

    In these rich cold waters, the dive teams recorded and filmed oodles of the famous lobsters on which Tristan’s certified sustainable fishery is based, scattered almost brazenly throughout the brightly-coloured boulder fields from which the giant kelp grows.  One of their most exciting discoveries however was the presence of lots of large female blue sharks and weeks-old pups, suggesting that the Tristan group is likely to be a previously unknown pupping area for this species which is heavily-fished around the world.  The team were able to deploy some satellite tags on the large females, so we will hopefully learn more about whether sharks are semi-resident or have travelled from afar to pup here. Three new fish species were also recorded for the first time in Tristan’s waters, while some intriguingly unidentifiable whales did a brief but tantalising swim-by on one camera. So although we recorded a huge amount of valuable data, we left with the overwhelming impression that, after three weeks in the archipelago, we had only been able to scratch the surface of the secrets of this remote wildlife hotspot.


    Image courtesy of Andy Schofield

     Image courtesy of Jonathan Hall. 

    My outstanding natural highlight was a visit to the upland valley on Gough Island World Heritage Site where the Critically Endangered Tristan albatross breed, but the overwhelming memory is of the people. Not only was it a privilege to work with the hugely professional National Geographic Pristine Seas team, but the incredibly warm welcome and assistance we received from the Tristan da Cunha Government and community was unforgettable. We were extremely fortunate to have the Heads of both the Tristan Government Fisheries & Conservation Departments join us on board the expedition boat with some of their key staff for the entire duration of the voyage. Their insights and advice on reading the roaring forties weather and finding the anchorages where we could always get to work was invaluable.

     Image courtesy of Andy Schofield.

    As way of a thank you, we were therefore delighted to jointly host a free event on the last night of the expedition in the hall of the Tristan settlement (named ‘Edinburgh of the Seven Seas’), to which about 85% of the island’s population came. The team pulled out all the stops so we were able to immediately report back on the headlines of the scientific findings, and also showcase a short highlights reel containing some of the best shots from the expedition. This was extremely well-received by the community, many of whom have never seen much of their remarkable underwater environment before so were thrilled to see some of their marine treasures for the first time. The community have a strong desire to have a Tristan-lead process to safeguard their waters for their children and grandchildren, and we’ll now be focusing on bringing all the information together to help them designate their new marine protection regime by 2020. In the meantime, here's a small flavour of this remarkable UK Overseas Territory, thanks to our friends at Pristine Seas.