My passion for wildlife was stimulated in my teenage years, mainly thanks to my Mum (a biology teacher) who made me look at the world differently and being inspired by writers such as Paul Colinvaux. This early interest developed into biological research in my 20s, when I did practical conservation work in places such as the Comores and Mongolia.
Today, any free time I have I spend pottering around the flatlands of East Anglia or escaping to our hut on the Northumberland coast looking for wildlife and castles with my wife and children.
I studied Biological Sciences at Oxford and Conservation at UCL, and worked at Wildlife and Countryside Link before spending five years as Conservation Director at Plantlife.
I joined the RSPB as Head of Government Affairs in 2004, became Head of Sustainable Development in 2006, before becoming Conservation Director in 2011.
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.
A guest blog by Michael Copleston, RSPB's Regional Development Manager for the Midlands
The anticipation is now palpable as the days and months creep forward to RSPB opening a brand new visitor centre and take on the management of the Sherwood Forest National Nature Reserve.I’ve just been at another superb Robin Hood Festival with my 2 year old daughter, along with thousands of other families, and how brilliant it was to see people having fun in the heart of an historic forest. So many people love Sherwood, and from all walks of life.RSPB and its many partners in Sherwood have a huge job to do. We’re now getting to the business end of the project when bricks and mortar, timber and stone, and all of the landscape design that goes into creating new facilities for hundreds of thousands of visitors start to be pieced together.Artist's impression: 3D view of planned visitor centre from amphitheatre. Image credit: JDDK – rspb images
I’m mindful that the Major Oak has seen pretty much everything come and go in the past thousand years or more, Kings, Queens, Vikings, and civilisation as we know it, but I hope this really is where legends still grow, and the RSPB and partners can build a legacy to be proud of for the next thousand years.There is no doubt RSPB’s new chapter at Sherwood Forest is a bold step in combining our great love (and purpose) of protecting our finest places and priority species, together with an unprecedented opportunity to grow support and connections to nature.Sherwood is clearly known first and foremost for its Robin Hood connection which transcends countries and cultures globally, but interestingly one of the hidden marvels of Sherwood for many is the internationally significant collection of Ancient Oaks. Every one of these weather-worn trees, a living sculpture, has watched over this wild kingdom for more then 600 years.In fact, this collection of Ancient and Veteran trees is arguably the largest group anywhere in Europe, being a curious remnant of the Royal Hunting Forest landscape and a historical artefact of our ship building past.Ecologically, ancient oaks offer shelter and sanctuary for hundreds of species, some of which may only exist in tandem with the unique habitat provided by massive, twisted, gnarly oaks filled with countless pockets and holes of living and dead wood. The eminent Forester Oliver Rackham once wrote “Ten thousand oaks of one hundred years are no substitute for one five hundred year old oak tree” which gives a serious indication of their value.But importantly, the RSPB knows that together with others such as the Sherwood Forest Trust, the land owner Thoresby Estate, Woodland Trust and further stakeholders throughout the Sherwood landscape that there is a significant plight and conservation need. These ancient oaks have seen their forest home shrink by over two-thirds in the last two centuries. If Ancient Oaks like the thousand individuals left in the wider Sherwood landscape are to survive for future generations, they need nature lovers like us and you to help them.The main man: Robin Hood taking aim in the forest. Image credit: Colin Wilkinson
We know that improving the existing habitat and survival of these Ancient Oaks will benefit a huge variety of species, and across the wider National Nature Reserve mixtures of open heath, wood pasture and open rides benefits many others, such as woodlark, nightjar, redstart, as well as broader assemblages of invertebrates and flora. Interestingly Sherwood is still home to the lesser spotted woodpecker, a bird the size of a sparrow, and our work behind the scenes will continue to target species such as this diminutive bird that since the 1970s has suffered such disastrous decline that over 75% have been lost in the UK.Here is your chance to be a part of this. Please visit and enjoy the new facilities and incredible reserve when we open the doors next year, but first if you can, we would greatly appreciate your support at the start of this special project. We have a great team but a huge amount of work ahead of us. We would love for as many of you as possible to become a Guardian of Sherwood Forest, helping us raise £250,000 before the 11th of August and support our new legacy for Sherwood and help its ancient oaks and the wildlife they shelter.
Every year the UK Government publishes a set of biodiversity indicators. These provide the official position on the state of the nation’s species, the pressures they face but also how well we are responding to these changes. These reports are of a very high quality and are by necessity incredibly detailed. If like me you are so inclined, they also invite healthy scrutiny and commentary.
The indicators themselves rarely bring good news and today’s release shows little improvement in the condition of our most important wildlife sites and the continued decline of our most threatened species. This year’s update also shows worrying trends in public expenditure for both domestic and international conservation.
The new Defra Secretary of State, Michael Gove, has indicated a willingness to reform farm subsidies so that more of the £3.1 billion of public money that goes into farming is used to reward farmers for delivering environmental outcomes such as abundant nature and flood prevention. This would certainly help in tackling the continuing declines in our species, as would establishing a new fund to replace European funding that will be lost when the UK leaves the EU.
We also need to see the mobilising of finance to support international conservation efforts by a) ensuring that 20% of the £5.8 billion UK International Climate Finance fund is spent on forestry especially, to help reduce emissions from deforestation and degradation and b) maintaining, bolstering and celebrating the impact of the Darwin Initiative which has benefited wildlife and people in both UK Overseas Territories and developing countries. (A new funding round is now open which is good news for this important initiative.)
We are a nation that loves nature and the environmental NGO sector boasts 8 million supporters but we must to do more to activate our memberships.
The RSPB currently benefits from nearly a million hours each year gifted to us for free by our amazingly generous network of volunteers. However, across the sector volunteering is down by 14% over the last five years. Does this reflect a loss of connection with nature or a reassessment of personal time in increasingly difficult circumstances? It’s impossible to say.
What I will say is that the RSPB will continue to press the government to meet its promise to leave the environment in a better state for the next generation, whilst doing our utmost to support them in their efforts.