August, 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
  • In search of a favourite ‘sit spot’

    In recent years, I have established a holiday tradition of getting up an hour or so earlier than the rest of the family and then sitting outside to read.  At our hut on the Northumberland coast, I position my chair facing the rising sun, sheltered from the wind and enjoy coffee and peace for as long as family sleep allows.

    As I sit on the cliff, the world seems to come to me.  Gulls, linnets, pipits, swallows and starlings fly head high past me unperturbed by my presence.  They are going about their morning business and I am an irrelevance to them. 

    Looking South to Coquet Island from my favourite sit spot

    My seat outside my hut is what Claire Thompson in her excellent book, The Art of Mindful Birdwatching, would call my sit spot.  She would probably like me to be a little more disciplined and put down the book and coffee to help me clear my mind as I connect with the sounds, sights and smells of nature.  But I am happy with the impact of my sit spot tradition.  By the end of the holiday I feel ready to return to the routine of ‘normal life’. 

    But sit spots should be for life and not just for holidays.  So, I'll accept Claire’s challenge and make the time to find my sit spot at home.  It is all too easy to ignore the garden birds as the kids are preparing to go to school, to be distracted by the endless chatter of the radio on the way in to work and to be wrapped up in my own thoughts as I head to the office before the inevitable series of meetings.

    Claire is right, of course.  Taking proper time out in nature is not only enjoyable but through real connection, we are refreshed and more equipped to take on the challenges that life throws at us.  It should be something we do every day.  Rather than be enveloped by the pressures and complexity of life, a ‘mindful’ approach allows us to respond better to events and use our finite emotional energy more sparingly.

    RSPB's mission is to inspire a world richer in nature - for its own sake but also because our own lives (including our own mental well-being) depend on nature.  It could be argued that the more nature there is around us, the more fulfilling any sit spots become.  So, this autumn, as the memory and impact of my holiday recedes to be replaced by RSPB plans to have greater impact for nature, I shall find a new ‘sit spot’ at home and build it in to my daily routine. 

    My colleagues and family will be the first to know if this makes any difference.

    Do you have a favourite sit spot? If you do, it would be great to compare notes...


  • Why, post Brexit, we must mind the governance gap

    August is traditionally a quiet time for policy developments.  With Parliament in recess, most years we hear very little from governments as we all enjoy the late summer sun/cloud/rain (delete as appropriate). This August however, Westminster decided to buck the usual trend, and the UK Government released a series of position papers on some of the big issues relating to the UK vote to leave the EU.  So while many of us have been away on our summer holidays, the UK Government has sought to clarify their aspirations for the nature of our future relationship with the EU.

    Wednesday’s paper entitled ‘Enforcement and dispute resolution – a future partnership paper’ was the most recent installment.  The RSPB, and our partners in the Greener UK coalition, were waiting for this paper, hoping it would clarify what the arrangements for enforcing environmental laws in the UK might look like post-Brexit.

    All laws need to be enforced in order to have any impact – otherwise they are just pieces of paper. As you probably know, about 80% of our environmental laws stem from the EU. Establishing common legal standards across the board has been important for protecting our shared environment (since wildlife does not respect borders), as well as preventing any one member state from gaining a short-term economic advantage over others by trashing their environment.  On that basis, it also made perfect sense for us to have shared, EU-wide institutions to carry out the monitoring and enforcement required in order to hold all member states to those common standards.

    The European Court of Justice (ECJ) has played an important part in this. Unlike the UK’s Supreme Court, the ECJ can ultimately impose fines on a government if it fails to comply with the ECJ’s judgement based on EU environmental legislation – a strong incentive. Whilst these powers are rarely used in practice, the threat of their use gives extra ‘teeth’ to the court process, and means that most cases are resolved without resorting to the court itself, as we hope will happen with our complaint about management of protected blanket blogs in northern England.

    Moor burn photo by Andy Hay (

    As the UK withdraws from the EU, it’s important that we ensure there’s no weakening in enforcement of environmental laws in the UK.  We need institutions in place to identify when environmental damage is occurring, who is to blame, and to hold them to account for their actions.

    Sadly, this week’s Government position paper gave us no further clarity on exactly what future enforcement might look like and was instead focussed on the governance of a future UK/EU relationship – another critical area where environmental protections need to be considered, and which I will come back to in a future blog. 

    So we still don’t know how environmental laws will be enforced in the UK post-Brexit.  We assume that the UK Government is still intending to rely on judicial review and the parliamentary processes.  Judicial review is an important mechanism, but it is inadequate and incomplete for this task and is another issue I will return to in a future blog.

  • Turning the tide for the albatross

    Following Stuart Housden's series of blogs in the run up to BirdFair, Steph Winnard of the RSPB/Birdlife Marine team reports back on the work carried out by the Albatross Task Force, since the receipt of BirdFair funding seventeen years ago.


    Much has happened in the birding world since the BirdFair focussed its efforts on raising money for Global Seabirds.  In 2000, vast numbers of seabirds were dying in fisheries around the globe, including 100,000 albatrosses on longlines every year- that’s one every 5 minutes!  With the help of the funds raised from that year's BirdFair we were able to kick-start action to reduce this threat. Since then huge progress has been made to save the albatross, and we are striving to save even more.

    Image courtesy of Bokamoso Lebepe

    The Albatross Task Force (ATF) was formed as a partnership between RSPB and BirdLife International to bridge the gap between knowledge that already existed about how to stop birds being killed (using certain cheap and cheerful techniques) and getting these techniques on to boats and fishers using them. Funding was desperately needed to employ and train people who could go onto fishing vessels and show fishers the simple methods available to drastically reduce seabird deaths. These measures include; setting lines at night when birds are less active, adding weight to the line so it sinks faster out of reach of hungry birds, and using bird-scaring lines which are brightly coloured streamers towed behind the vessel that scare birds away from danger areas. From humble beginnings of employing just one team in South Africa, to the current work programme across seven priority countries in South America and southern Africa, the ATF has driven efforts to reduce bycatch in longline and trawl fisheries.

    Image courtesy of Ruben Dellacasa

    Ten fisheries were selected as the highest priority fleets for albatross, and since then we have concentrated on reducing seabird bycatch in these fisheries. One of the first tasks was to conduct experiments to test the techniques in each fleet, and make any adjustments depending on the vessel design and the fishing gear used, as well as environmental conditions. For example in Argentina we had to develop a towed device called a “Tamini tabla”, that stops bird-scaring lines from being blown sideways by the strong cross-winds found in that part of the world and entangling in the fishing gear. Lucky for us the ATF team is innovative and passionate about what they do, and time and time again come up with solutions to problems that initially seem insurmountable.

    Image courtesy of LeoTamini

    In South Africa in 2006 we calculated that over 9,000 birds were being killed every year by the Hake trawl fishery. Amazingly by 2013 we showed that albatross deaths had been reduced by an astounding 99% by using bird-scaring lines. By the end of 2017 we hope to show that the trawl and longline fleet in Namibia (previously some of the worst fleets globally) have also achieved significant reductions in deaths, following the introduction of legislation to protect seabirds, and a campaign to provide all of the vessels with bird-scaring lines, made by a local community group.

    These successes are not easy to achieve and require a huge amount of effort. Firstly none of the work would be possible without getting the fishers and local communities onboard. ATF instructors visit the ports day after day to talk with the fishers, hold workshops and training events, and visit schools to educate the younger generation about how we can save seabirds and why it’s important that we should.

    Once you’ve gained the respect and trust of the fishing industry you then need to test the measures scientifically to prove that they reduce bycatch. In all of our fisheries we showed that bird deaths could be reduced by at least 80%. Implementation is paramount in reducing deaths over the long run, so the ATF instructors don’t only have to be sailors, scientists, teachers, and inventors but they also have to be advocates and lobbyists to encourage governments to require the use of these measures by law.  9 out of the 10 fisheries now have legislation to protect seabirds, which is testament to the dedication and tenacity of the teams.

    Image courtesy of Fabiano Pepe

    The final step is to make sure that the fishers are complying with the law, and in some countries this is easier than others. Scientific observers are employed in some places to monitor fishing activities on vessels. They are mainly concerned with the fish being caught, but after attending an ATF seabird ID training course, they have the skills to monitor for seabird bycatch. We’ve recently held training events in Namibia and South Africa, and have had hugely positive feedback from the observers, who now know their black-browed from their Atlantic yellow-nosed albatross, and are keen to start checking for compliance.

    It’s a long road to saving the albatross, but thanks to funding from BirdFair, the Albatross Task Force has been able to make good progress toward reducing the vast numbers of birds killed every year. In some colonies albatross numbers are starting to increase, and in others the declines have levelled off. We hope that through our continued engagement with fishers the tide will truly turn for the albatross, and one day we will be able to say they are no longer threatened.

     Image courtesy of John Paterson