July, 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
  • Bee-eaters in the UK: a glimpse into the future?

    Ten thousand people have now visited the bee-eaters that have made their home in a Cemex quarry in Nottinghamshire.  Seven birds (three pairs and an additional helper) have set up three nests and chicks are beginning to hatch.  This morning, I spent a delightful hour watching the birds flit over one of the quarry ponds doing what they do best - eat bees (by catching them, rearranging them by tossing their prey in the air and then hitting the insects against a branch to remove the sting). 

    It's not too late to visit the birds who, provided the family stays safe, should stick around until the end of August.  Simply tap LE12 6RG into your sat-nav and you'll find the sign a make-shift car park in a field kindly provided by a local farmer.  You'll be welcomed by a RSPB warden or a volunteer and they'll guide you to the viewing point.  

    As a colleague pointed out, everyone needs a bit of sunshine in their life and these beautiful birds are a good antidote to the overcast conditions that have dominated the past fortnight.  Even I managed to grab the above image taken with a phone and a scope. Many thanks to our wardens, the volunteers, the local farmer, Cemex and Notts Wildlife Trust for making the experience so straight-forward and to the beeeaters themselves for making the visit so memorable.

    The last time I mentioned bee-eaters in my blog was following a holiday in the Pyrenees.  The birds usually breed in southern Europe and are incredibly rare breeders in the UK.  Yet, as the climate changes, beeeaters are predicted to move north.

    In 2008, the RSPB and BirdLife International worked with Durham University to produce a Climatic Atlas of European Breeding Birds and this showed how the potential breeding range of different species might shift as the climate changes.  On average, species were predicted to move 550km north-east and species were predicted to lose 20% of their range under a moderate greenhouse gas emissions scenario.  Yet, species will only be able to colonise new areas if there is available suitable habitat.  

    This, of course, applies as much to bee-eaters as to any other species.  You can see from the map below, that the potential breeding range is likely to shift and so while doing all we can to wean ourselves off fossil fuels and mitigate the impacts of climate change, we also need to think about how best help nature adapt to climate change.  As species move polewards, the UK is going to increasingly become an ark for some species. So we have to think about about to ensure climate colonists like bee-eaters have what they need.   All the evidence suggests that existing areas of natural/semi-natural habitat will be essential and that Professor Sir John Lawton's mantra for more, bigger, better and connected protected areas applies as much to existing UK wildlife as it does for our wildlife of tomorrow.  

    That's why, the RSPB wants at least 20% of the UK land area to be well managed for nature by 2025 and Defra's much anticipated 25 year environment plan needs to provide the actions to take us in that direction.   As we wrote in 2008,

    "We have much to do, and the Climatic Atlas is a warning, that we must do it faster, and with more courage. We must cut emissions deeply, and immediately; and we must re-invest in policies to protect and enhance the natural environment. Anything less, and we may find that even if we come through the climate crisis, much of our precious wildlife will not."

    Maps taken from the Climatic Atlas of European Breeding Birds.  Key: Each coloured dot represents an area of 50 km2. White areas have climatic conditions outside the range for which a simulation could be made. Yellow dots: species simulated as absent.  Blue dots: species simulated as breeding.  Top map simulated distribution 1961-1990; bottom map simulated distribution for late 21st century.

  • Hen Harrier Day 2017: guest blog by Chris Corrigan, RSPB England Director

     RSPB England Director Chris Corrigan discusses why we should get along to Hen Harrier Day this year.


     Over the weekend of 5-6 August (and today for anyone lucky enough to be visiting Mull), Hen Harrier Day events will be happening around the country.

    In my new role as RSPB Director for England, the desperate plight of this magnificent moorland bird of prey is of great concern but I take great heart that a growing number of people are united in their desire to see more hen harriers in our uplands and an end to the illegal killing which is holding back their recovery.

    We hope you will visit a Hen Harrier Day event (with a friend!) and meet like-minded people who care passionately about our birds of prey. This is the fourth year that volunteers from the Birders Against Wildlife Crime are organising events across the UK to highlight the plight of the hen harrier and celebrate this ‘ghost bird’ of our moorlands.

    The RSPB is happy to be supporting Hen Harrier Day and will be hosting events at our Rainham Marshes, Arne (I will be here with Chris Packham), and Loch Leven reserves. There will be some great activities to get involved in and talks from passionate hen harrier supporters.

    For me, the saddest thing about the current hen harrier situation is the lack of recent breeding success in Bowland. This part of Lancashire used to be England’s breeding stronghold for the bird but there hasn’t been a successful nesting attempt here since 2015.   

    Although I have spent my RSPB career in South East England I was brought up in East Lancashire. I have many special childhood memories of seeing wildlife there.  Counting dippers from my school bus and finding a migrating dotterel are two particular highlights, but easily my most special experience was a wonderful unexpected encounter with displaying hen harriers over Bowland. This would have been in about 1980, the year in which there were 39 hen harrier nesting attempts in Bowland, a number which seems unimaginable now less than 40 years later.

    I feel so lucky to have seen this wonderful bird of prey, which breeds on heather moorland in some of our remotest upland areas. Here they feed on other birds and small mammals but despite full legal protection, hen harriers have long been a target for illegal killing because they can sometimes also eat red grouse.

    Driven grouse shooting is an intensive form of shooting, which requires large numbers of birds so moorland managers are inevitably under pressure to maximise the numbers on an estate. This leads to some stepping outside the law to kill birds of prey in an attempt to boost the numbers of grouse.   

    There are many people who would like to see an outright ban on driven grouse shooting and this is understandable, faced with evidence like this and this. Meanwhile, many in the driven grouse shooting industry remain focussed on seeking guarantees that they will be able to control hen harrier recovery. But despite voluntary initiatives which promised change from the industry, these have failed to stop the killing of birds of prey like the hen harrier, or deliver the crucial improvements needed for other upland wildlife and protected habitats.

    For this reason, the RSPB wants to see licensing system introduced to govern driven grouse shooting. We think a fair set of rules - underpinned by law - is needed so that there are effective measures to stop illegal and unfair practices.  This would target and penalise only those landowners who fail to meet necessary standards or step outside the law and kill protected species.

    We think licensing could protect hen harriers and their upland home, whilst also helping those operating lawfully to distance themselves from illegal practices, which are increasingly bringing driven grouse shooting into disrepute and threaten the industry’s long term future.

    Three months into my new role, one of my top priorities is to return the hen harrier to the uplands of northern England. I doubt it will be a quick fix but the RSPB is relentless in the pursuit of protecting our most special wildlife. Over 100 years ago we were founded by a group of women who fought against the feather trade which was driving declines in egrets and other amazing birds. That spirit remains at the heart of the RSPB and we will campaign with equal vigour on behalf of the hen harrier.

    Hen Harrier Day carries a simple message: stop killing hen harriers (#StopKillingHenHarriers) and we hope everyone will agree how important this is for hen harriers, but also so future generations will get to witness this marvelous skydancing ‘ghostbird’ of our moorlands. 

  • Farming outside of the EU: some clues for future policy

    The future of farming policy outside of the European Union is rightly attracting a lot of attention and some themes are beginning to emerge.

    First, it is clear that the UK Government wants reform.  The new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Michael Gove said on Friday that “the CAP... encourages patterns of land use which are wasteful of natural resources and often intrinsically poor value rather than encouraging imaginative and environmentally enriching alternatives”.  

    We agree.  

    The UK vote to leave the European Union is an opportunity to overhaul farming and land use policy especially as agriculture covers 75% of the UK and is the biggest driver of decline in populations of UK species.

    Second, it’s clear that the UK Government wants public money to used to deliver things that the public will wants/needs.  Mr Gove said “this Government has pledged that when we leave the EU we will match the £3 billion that farmers currently receive in support from the CAP until 2022. And I want to ensure that we go on generously supporting farmers for many more years to come. But that support can only be argued for against other competing public goods if the environmental benefits of that spending are clear.”  He went on to say “we need to take the opportunity that being outside the Common Agricultural Policy will give us to use public money to reward environmentally-responsible land use” and“understanding how to create and protect habitats should be as much a part of good farming as understanding the latest crop and soil science.”

    We agree.

    Lake Vyrnwy (Eleanor Bentnall rspb-images.com)

    Our work with farmers has shown that well-designed, well funded agri-environment schemes can help recover farmland wildlife.  This week, at the Royal Welsh Show (which is where I am today), we launched as part of Wales Environment Link, ‘A Sustainable Land Management vision for Wales’ (here). This includes the recommendation for a new Sustainable Land Management Contract that supports land managers to restore nature and manage natural resources soundly.  This chimes with thinking from the CLA who also promote a Land Management Contract concept.  So, there is emerging consensus that environmental public goods provide the central logic for public investment in the countryside. 

    This all sounds good, but there are at least a couple of bear traps.

    First, emerging farming policy must be made to work for all parts of the UK.  Given the current devolution settlement, there is a a clear need for cooperation between the governments of the UK after we leave the EU. This should mean the UK Government engaging with the devolved administrations, and developing a shared approach through consensus. 

    Second, we need to think about how future farming policy might affect different parts of the farming sector. Michael Gove said that “ support for farmers in areas like the Lake District, upland Wales or the Scottish borders is critical to keeping our countryside healthy. Indeed, whether it’s hill farmers or island crofters, or those running small family farms in England and Northern Ireland, there is a need to ensure that the human ecology of rural areas is protected”.

    The RSPB cares about what happens to our rural communities.  Many of our staff and volunteers live and work in them.  We think is vital that a future policy rewards those High Nature Value farming systems that currently get the worst deal, despite delivering the most from an environmental perspective. This may mean maintaining current farming practices and rewarding them accordingly for what they provide.  

    Yet, in other areas, we need to find a way to influence those that are locked into environmentally unsustainable farming systems.  Here, we need the State to think creatively to help these farmers adapt to benefit from new incentives that might reward protection of environmental goods and services (such as storing water to prevent flooding or restoring habitat to provide clean drinking water) or help them diversify their businesses so they are no longer reliant on a form of farming that damages the environment. 

    It is refreshing that farming policy is now subject to intense debate and I hope that the frame of this debate remains broad: to deliver a vibrant farming community that provides healthy food while restoring the farmed environment.