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.
All across the northern hemisphere, the southward autumn migration of birds is now in full swing. This migration is undeniably perilous, with a host of natural and now increasingly human-induced factors all taking their toll on the many millions of migrants that undertake these journeys out of necessity to find safe wintering grounds.
On one part of UK territory, the Dhekelia Sovereign Base Area (SBA) of Cyprus, this migration heralds the start of the autumn killing season. I wrote on this issue in April highlighting the scale of the bird trapping issues, and again in May, after my visit to Cyprus, when I witnessed first-hand the acacia groves where this killing is, once again, taking place. I want to give you a brief update as to what has been happening over the summer, and, at the end, suggest what you can do.
Juvenile red-backed shrike on lime stick. Image credit: Birdlife Cyprus
Last week, the memory of these acacia groves was thrust back at me, as I watched two videos taken by our Investigations team in 2016 relating to two recent convictions of another five bird trappers. Not for the squeamish here and here but this is just so utterly wrong. And it is of course illegal. This is the tragedy of Dhekelia.
These videos were the result of the excellent work jointly undertaken by the RSPB Investigations unit and SBA police last autumn. It has been in no small part because of this evidence that convictions against 14 trappers in six operations have been secured by the British authorities over the last few months (with one final case of five defendants still to come). Faced with such damning footage, it is little wonder that the trappers have been entering guilty pleas. Moreover, the sentences that are being handed out reflect the seriousness of the court in Cyprus. We hope that this may all finally begin to act as a real deterrent: fines have been imposed of up to Euro 2500 per person, while six month prison sentences suspended for up to three years dramatically raise the risks for any of the trappers who are caught again.
In contrast, however, in the Republic of Cyprus itself, the relaxation of the hunting laws at the end of June – in direct contravention of the EU Birds Directive – suggests less respect for the environment and legal obligations. This relaxation effectively decriminalises the use of lime sticks to catch birds (a particularly barbaric technique) while making enforcement against restaurants that serve pickled songbirds (‘ambelopoulia’) virtually impossible. We continue to support our local partner, Birdlife Cyprus, in any way that we can to help reduce the crucial demand side of this problem.
The UK’s direct responsibility is, of course, more in terms of the supply rather than the demand. In this respect, we applaud the two operations carried out by the SBA authorities over the summer to disrupt the irrigation infrastructure used to water the acacia groves. A measure of the importance of the acacias can be seen in the videos (linked above): they provide both the support for the trapping nets and cover for the trappers themselves, but also act to bring in concentrations of songbirds which otherwise would be safely on their way. This underlines the fact that the end goal must remain the total removal of all these acacia groves by the SBA authorities.
We still care deeply about this issue and I remain appalled that the killing continues. As the season unfolds, I will seek to keep you updated. If you would like to support the work to combat this killing in Dhekelia directly, please consider writing to your MP, asking them to encourage the MoD to persist with this very positive work until the acacia is all removed.
The latest countries to be in the firing line during this year's hurricane season include three UK Overseas Territories - Anguilla, British Virgin Islands and Turks & Caicos. Our thoughts are with those affected by the storms especially our partners with whom we work to protect the incredible wildlife in the Caribbean. The devastation left in the wake of the storms will be horrific and my hope is that when the storms die down and media attention moves on, that the politicians including here in the UK play their part in recovery efforts. It was therefore good to hear yesterday that the UK Government has announced a £32m relief fund.
These events take place in a week when the RSPB has been hosting a visit from a Chinese delegation that have been involved in a major coastal habitat restoration scheme in the Yellow Sea. So my mind turned to the role that coastal wetlands can play in reducing the impact of climate change. The science suggests that climate change increases the intensity of these storms some of which will trigger tidal surges. Coastal communities around the world need support to help them cope with this and, of course, sea level rise.
Coastal wetlands make communities more resilient by providing flood storage, storm surge buffers, erosion control, water quality improvements, and of course wildlife habitat. We've been involved in many such schemes in the UK and that was, in part, the motivation for the connection to the work in the Yellow Sea.
In recent years, China has arguably become a world leader in environmental matters - ‘eco-civilisation’ now being at the heart of its national strategy. Gradually this policy is having real impact in real place. A prime example of this new approach is Shanghai’s Chongming Dongtan National Nature Reserve (shown below), which acts as a gateway to the Yellow Sea. The Yellow Sea, which China shares with North and South Korea, is the most important staging area for coastal waterbirds in the world. It is also the most threatened, due to the exceptional rate of development along the Chinese and South Korean coasts. The spoon-billed sandpiper, which has been a species recovery priority for the RSPB, is among about 30 species brought to the brink of extinction because of this. For this reason helping to conserve and restore the Yellow Sea ecosystem is also a priority for the BirdLife International Global Flyways Programme.
Chongming Dongtan, established nearly 20 years ago, and well resourced by Shanghai, has been managed by Director Tang and his team who I met this week. Director Tang has clearly provided great vision, ambition and a real focus on nature conservation as well as outreach. Yet, he was also clear about what was needed to get the job done. As he said quite candidly this week "we have the money, we sometimes don't know what to do". So, their approach is to find the best people in the world to help them achieve their vision.
From the point of view of a migratory waterbird, the Yellow Sea plays the same role, of a crucial refuelling stop, in the East Asian Australasian Flyway as the North Sea does in the African-Eurasian Flyway. Shanghai and London are both the biggest cities and at the south west corner of their respective sea. Thus Wallasea Island, situated on the outskirts of London, like Chongming Dongtan, is the gateway to its sea. The destruction of coastal wetlands happening in the Yellow Sea now, already happened in the UK about half a century ago. And that is what the Wallasea Island Wild Coast project has set out to restore through its major engineering project resulting in more habitat, more wildlife, protection from storm surges and new recreational opportunities (see below). So it was natural fit for Chongming Dongtan to approach the RSPB to partner with them to restore part of their site from the invasive cordgrass, Spartina, which they had decided to eradicate by flooding, necessitating a major engineering project.
This partnership was marked this week when Director Tang and RSPB Chief Executive Mike Clarke (shown below) signed a twinning agreement. We hope that Chongming Dongtan will form part of the exciting Yellow Sea World Heritage nomination, on which I reported earlier this year. Like Wallasea in Europe, I am sure that Chongming Dongtan will inspire other efforts in China to protect the natural environment at the coast. Ultimately, in these volatile times, we need well managed coasts which benefit both wildlife and people.
Deciding to introduce any form of predator control (lethal or non-lethal) is something we never take lightly. It’s always based on evidence* and guided by our Council-agreed policy.
The RSPB’s approach to any type of predator control means that we first seek evidence of a problem, check whether there is a non-lethal solution and if so implement that. In many cases this does the job needed.
One such example is at the RSPB’s Otmoor nature reserve in Oxfordshire, currently celebrating its twentieth anniversary, where our team of staff and volunteers have created a wonderful wetland giving homes to waders such as lapwing, redshank and snipe. Our management has also aided the return of bittern, marsh harrier and crane. Otmoor is providing the missing link to the wetlands in the Fens in the east and those in the Somerset Levels to the west.
RSPB Otmoor by Eleanor Bentnall (rspb-images.com)
Those of you that have visited the site will not have failed to have noticed the electric fence around the field we call ‘Big Otmoor’ (shown below). This is designed to exclude mammalian predators and has been instrumental in driving up the productivity of lapwings.
It may seem incongruous to see this structure in the middle of a nature reserve but this level of management is our response to the fragmented nature of our countryside and our motivation to re-engineer wildlife back into the landscape. As you can see from the graph below, the fence, which was installed in 2010, works and has helped deliver more wader chicks for visitors to see and to join the thriving population.
What's more, anti-predator fences are performing well across our reserve network. We now have fences at 28 reserves protecting breeding waders over 874 ha. At sites with anti-predator fences, lapwing productivity has been consistently above that necessary for population maintenance (0.6 chicks fledged per pair), even though at most sites only a proportion of the suitable habitat is protected by the fence. The graph below shows mean Lapwing productivity at RSPB reserves with anti-predator fencing, at which productivity has been regularly monitored. Bars show + one standard error. The figures above the bars show the number of reserves with anti-predator fencing, at which productivity was monitored.
But non-lethal methods, whilst always our preferred way of doing things, are not always practical. As I have written previously, lethal vertebrate control on RSPB reserves is only considered where the following four criteria are met:
If we can satisfy ourselves of all these things then we can be sure to make the right decision.
* Using results of previously published studies, we have completed a review of the impact of predation on birds. This will be published soon and its results are consistent with those of our 2007 review: despite high and increasing densities of predators, we found little support that predation limits populations of pigeons, woodpeckers and songbirds, whereas evidence suggests that ground-nesting seabirds, waders and gamebirds can be limited by predation.
Vertebrates controlled on RSPB nature reserves 2015-16
As in previous years (see here, here and here), I have included two tables below which show the lethal vertebrate control undertaken (for both conservation and other reasons) on our reserves, which now number 210 sites covering more than 150,000 hectares across the UK, in the period 2015-16. Some of the numbers are lower than in the previous year as 2014/15 was a 17-month period due to the change in reporting date.
a) control for conservation reasons
b) control for other reasons