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
  • Vultures: Where is the learning curve?

    Today’s guest blog is from Andrew Callender, who leads the RSPB’s international policy programme work.

    Vultures used to be a very common sight in the early 1990’s across the Indian sub-continent. A decade and a half later, 99.9% of white-rumped vultures  and 96.8% of the combined populations of long-billed  and slender-billed vultures in India – well over 40 million birds – were dead. The absence of vultures left millions of tonnes of livestock carcasses every year for other scavengers. Feral dog populations have sky-rocketed, increasing the risk of dog attacks and the transmission of rabies.

    The cause of this population collapse was by no means obvious, but, in 2004, it was shown to be the veterinary drug diclofenac, a popular anti-inflammatory pain-killer, to which vultures were exposed through consuming carcasses of treated cattle. Vultures are highly intolerant to even small doses of diclofenac, which causes irreversible renal damage and death (preceded by characteristic drooping heads as seen below); indeed it is so toxic to vultures that the presence of diclofenac in only 1% of carcasses across India caused the observed declines and near extinction of South Asia’s vultures.

    Dying white-rumped vulture Image credit: V. Prakash

    The RSPB worked with BirdLife Partners and other NGOs to lobby successfully for diclofenac to be banned in India, Nepal and Pakistan in 2006 (and then Bangladesh in 2010), and, fortuitously, a vulture-safe alternative to diclofenac was identified – meloxicam – in the same year. In 2011, we spearheaded the formation of Saving Asia’s Vultures from Extinction (SAVE), a consortium to coordinate the breeding vultures in captivity for future release, establishing Vulture Safe Zones free from diclofenac and working in partnership across borders. This work is on-going, and there are signs that the declines in vulture populations have slowed and possibly reversed for one species (white-rumped vulture); however, the number of vultures remains dangerously low.

    With such a clear link between the vulture population crashes and diclofenac, and the existence of a vulture-safe alternative to diclofenac, that should have been the end of its veterinary use. However, that has not been the case and we continue to fight against the misuse of diclofenac manufactured for human use in livestock in South Asia. In addition, diclofenac is not the only vulture-toxic drug in veterinary use in South Asia; and so we are lobbying for bans on other veterinary drugs as well.  

    We certainly would not have expected that the drug would find its way into Europe. Yet, diclofenac is now licensed for veterinary use in a number of EU countries: it was licensed in Italy in 2009; and gained approval in Spain in 2013. Italy has a small, but growing population of vultures in the north; but the real concern is in Spain where 95% of all Europe’s vultures live, with approximately 26,000 pairs of Eurasian griffons, 1,600 pairs of Egyptian vultures, 2,000 pairs of cinereous vultures and 125 pairs bearded vultures.

    Bearded Vulture in Spain Image Credit: O.V. Gjershaug

    Veterinary diclofenac does not have central marketing approval from the European Medicines Agency (EMA) as it is authorized independently by each Member State. The EMA did issue advice in 2014 that veterinary diclofenac did represent a real risk to European vultures, but it stopped short of an outright ban, claiming that it did not have sufficient information or the scope of remit. Instead it suggested Member States should recommend and implement risk mitigation measures regarding the drug’s application. This has not happened.

    The longer the drug remains in circulation, the greater the risk to European vulture populations. Europe’s eagles, including the Spanish imperial eagle, are at risk too because we have shown that eagles are also intolerant to diclofenac. Moreover, although the focus must remain on banning diclofenac, this is clearly not the only veterinary drug that is toxic to vultures and eagles. The pharmaceutical industry needs to do more to support the development of vulture-safe alternatives.

    So what can you do? Ban Vet Diclofenac is an initiative by our Spanish and Portuguese Birdlife Partners (SEO and SPEA respectively), the Vulture Conservation Foundation, WWF Spain and BirdLife Europe and Central Asia to ban veterinary diclofenac, a drug that could potentially wipe out vultures in Europe. The link to the petition is here

  • 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