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.
This is my last working week of the year so I thought I’d reflect on the impact that we have had over the past twelve months.
For me, the defining images of 2017 were of the British Virgin Islands before and after the devastation of Hurricane Irma. The fact that Irma struck UK Overseas Territories (UKOTs) in the Caribbean and affected the partners with whom we work made it all the more distressing. While it is heartening to see our partners pick themselves and begin to rebuild, there is still fear for the future. Unless we get to grips with climate change, future hurricane seasons could be even more intense.
Yet, the profile of UKOT islands has grown in recent weeks for positive reasons as well. The BBC’s Blue Planet 2 series has highlighted the incredible biodiversity importance of the marine environment around UKOTs and I am proud the RSPB is a part of the GB Oceans Coalition that has launched the #BackTheBlueBelt campaign – calling for the protection and management of 4 million square kilometres of sea. If you have not done so already, please do contact your MP to encourage them to support this campaign.
Growing political support remains a core part of what the RSPB does which is why I am so pleased that our joint Species Champion project has helped 44 MPs use their voices for nature. While Environment Secretary Michael Gove has said all the right things about making Brexit work for nature, the complexity of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, requires close scrutiny and exceptional collaboration by the governments across the UK to ensure the detail of any deal support ambitions to restore nature in a generation.
And the RSPB, thanks to the support of our members will do what we can to both make the case for action. As rules about the way we can contact our members changes, it has been fantastic to know that our supporters remain loyal and want to remain active in our mission. If you have not yet done so, please do say yes to remain connected to the RSPB.
Most importantly, perhaps, we continue to have a practical impact for nature. Below are my highlights from 2017. Grab a cup of tea and biscuit, put on some uplifting music and enjoy reading about what we have done together in 2017…
Our growing nature reserve network continues to help recover some of our most threatened bird species…
…At Labrador Bay, the population of cirl buntings has increased from 7 to 29 pairs in the 8 years that we have owned the reserve and Ash Hill Farm has been acquired as a new cirl reserve.
…It’s been another good year for cranes with the first ever chick fledging from West Sedgemoor. Another 4 fledged from the reintroduced population at the same reserve and an additional 18 fledged from the native population in East Anglia (Broads and Fens), Yorkshire and NE Scotland.
…Heritage Lottery Funding has been secured for Dearne Valley to understand more about the habitat usage at a landscape scale for our endemic sub-species of willow tit. The funding is part of the Back from the Brink partnership project (see below) and the actions will include habitat management and radio-tracking studies.
… Little terns have been successful in producing…more little terns - 17 chicks fledged at Pagham Harbour, 27 at Langstone Harbour and a record 73 at Chesil Beach
Out of the 16,000 species present on our nature reserves less than 3% of these are birds. And for this reason in 2017 we have continued to ensure that the >150,000 hectares that we manage across >210 sites cater for the needs of all these species. Over the past year, a large number of featherless species were given a boost…
…A pine hoverfly larva was found at Abernethy, which suggests that our attempts to establish a second site through translocation have succeeded. At the indigenous site at the Caledonian forest in the central Highlands of Scotland, additional 19 larvae were found and more habitat was created.
...A record of great yellow bumblebee was recorded at the RSPB’s Broubster Leans reserve and 7 more at Balranald on North Uist.
…A total of 93% of UK land mammal species have been recorded on our reserves, and there was excitement when a dormouse was discovered at Radipole Lake and Exminster Marshes reserve. This complements our other reserves where this species is present, namely Garston Wood, Broadwater Warren, Wolves Wood and Blean Woods.
…At our Mersehead reserve over 200 male natterjack toads were counted this spring. The toads have responded well to the scrapes that were dug over the past three years, with 69+ spawn strings recorded this breeding season, whereas the previous high count was less than 10. Approximately 500 natterjack toadlets were counted at The Lodge reserve in 2017, five times more than were counted in 2016.
...During a survey, over 300 stems of wavy St John’s Wort were revealed this summer at our Arthog Bog reserve on the Mawddach. In the past only a small population of the plant was recorded in the site, but a lot of effort has been put on restoring the reserve, by encroaching trees and scrub, re-wetting the area, mowing, and grazing with ponies.
Our reserves also provide welcome mats to new species whose ranges are moving northwards…
…A pair of spoonbills raised 3 young at Fairburn Ings (pictured below) this year. This rare bird is usually found in southern and Eastern Europe, it bred for the first time after many years of absence. It’s incredibly exciting to see successful spoonbill nesting coincide with the hard work on habitat improvement.
…3 out of the 6 pairs of black-winged stilts that bred this year in the UK were on RSPB reserves, with these 3 raising 9 young. This number represents the highest count of fledged stilts raised from all 12 nesting attempts between 1983 and 2016.
…Great white egret numbers continue to grow at Ham Wall where little bitterns also bred again alongside 7 pairs of cattle egret and night herons which nested successfully for the first time in the UK. This is now the seventh species of heron breeding on the Avalon Marshes.
We continue to make a difference for threatened species and priority habitats away from our nature reserves…
…in Scotland, efforts to save corn buntings are going well. Recovery measures have been extended to 75% of the Angus & Fife population and we were rewarded with a 16% increase in the population, bucking the national trend.
...The EU LIFE Project Godwit, which we are leading in partnership with WWT, is now up and running. 26 black-tailed godwits were raised in captivity and released through our head-starting programme, which has enabled us to boost the productivity of the species to one of the highest levels in recent years. A pair of black-tailed godwits also successfully fledged two young at Newton Marsh.
…of the 27 wood warblers fitted with geo-locators in 2016, three returned and two tags were retrieved. The data analysis showed that birds passed through Italy, crossed the Sahara in 1-2 flight, and had a lengthy 1-2 month stopover in Burkina Faso before spending the rest of the winter in Liberia within calling distance of Gola Forest (see below). These are the first UK-breeding wood warblers to have had their migratory journeys mapped.
…In September, we reached a major milestone in our battle to save Lodge Hill, the most important site for nightingales in the UK. The planning application for 5,000 houses was withdrawn, with more than 10,000 people objecting to the application to build on this incredibly important SSSI.
...A partnership programme that only launched recently, will improve habitats for birds, butterflies and other species, restore blanket bog and help produce drinking water at a lower cost across Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland and Scotland. The Co-operation Across Borders for Biodiversity (CABB) project, supported by the European Union’s INTERREG VA Programme and managed by the Special EU Programmes Body (SEUPB) will target on restoring 2,228 hectares of blanket bog and also raise the awareness in the communities involved of the environmental, cultural and historical importance of these wetland habitats.
Internationally, we continue (with and through BirdLife International partners) to save special places and provide a lifeline to some of the world’s most threatened species…
…Our vulture programme in Nepal is celebrating a major milestone as six captive-reared, Critically Endangered, white-rumped vultures have been released into the wild after 7 years in captivity. This exciting news followed the thankful end in this region of diclofenac sales for veterinary purposes and a partial recovery of the wild population of the species.
…In Sierra Leone, $1.8 million has been secured from the West Africa Biodiversity and Climate Change Programme to scale up conservation work across the 350,000 hectares of the Greater Gola forest landscape. At the same time we have worked with 1,500 farmers to produce rainforest friendly cocoa, with 12 metric tonnes exported and the first trial RSPB Gola chocolate bars produced. Target species favoured by the conservation methods are the white-necked picathartes and the pygmy hippopotamus.
…Thanks to grants of £1.75 million from the UK Government and $2 million from the National Fish & Wildlife Foundation, the RSPB Council have given the green light for mouse eradication on Gough (another UKOT island) in 2019 to prevent the critically endangered Tristan albatross and Gough bunting from becoming extinct.
…Our work on bycatch in gillnet fisheries has led to a complete ban on hunting of black guillemot in Iceland. The focus is now on reducing bycatch in gill nets, which will benefit long-tailed duck, scaup and velvet scoter in the UK.
…The Albatross Task Force has been so successful that black-browed albatross has recently been down-graded to ‘Least Concern’. Argentina has announced new measures to introduce bird-scaring ‘Tori lines’, which are predicted to save 9,000 albatross lives a year
...The level of illegal bird-trapping on Cyprus appears to have reduced this year thanks to the combined efforts of BirdLife Cyprus, the Sovereign Base Authorities and the RSPB Investigations team
We have also begun to do things differently…
…The ‘Puffarazzi’ project brought in more than 1,400 pictures of puffins from 602 people over 39 sites across UK and Ireland. Tracking 22 and 11 puffins respectively on the islands of Shiants and Unst also revealed foraging patterns for the species.
…Through a new coalition Rethink Nature*, we have forged a partnership with Natural England to save England’s most threatened species from extinction. The HLF funded the Back from the Brink programme aims to save 20 species from extinction and benefit 200 more, whether animal, plant or fungus. The 19 projects span large parts of England, from halting the decline of the Cornish path moss, only found in Cornwall, to monitoring the recovery of pine martens in Northumberland.
...Our Saving Nature Scheme is empowering volunteers to carry out direct, hands-on action to recover and conserve species in the UK. Volunteers are being trained and equipped to undertake high-end, skilled tasks from radio-tracking and ringing birds to flying drones for monitoring, providing them at the same time enhanced opportunities for lifelong learning.
…The Nature Friendly Farming Network has launched and will provide a platform for farmers to use their voices to advocate for farming that works for people and wildlife.. Farmers have come together to demonstrate what they do for wildlife, whilst still producing plentiful quality produce by building markets for nature friendly farming products. The members are committed to secure farming policies that support wildlife, sustainable agriculture and fairness for farmers.
It's been quite a year. None of this work would have been possible without the tireless effort of staff, volunteers, our partners and supporters past and present. And that is why I shall be thinking of former RSPB staff members who have passed away this year (and their families) including last week, Ian Baker and Tim Cleeves. Our job is to ensure their legacy continues.
Have a great break over Christmas and here’s to saving more nature in 2018.
*Rethink Nature is a partnership of seven conservation charities Amphibian and Reptile Conservation Trust, Bat Conservation Trust, Bumblebee Conservation Trust, Buglife, Butterfly Conservation, Plantlife and the RSPB
British Virgin Island: Earth Observatory
Crane: Nick Upton (rspb-images.com)
Cirl bunting: Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)
Fairburn Ings: David Wootton (rspb-images.com)
Nightingale: John Bridges (rspb-images.com)
Little tern: Ben Andrew (rspb-images.com)
Great yellow bumblebee: Mike Edwards (rspb-images.com)
Gola rainforest: Caroline Thomas (rspb-images.com)
Black guillemot: Chris Gomersall (rspb-images.com)
Puffin: Chiara Ceci (rspb-images.com)
Unless you’ve been out of the country for the past few months, you’ve probably noticed Environment Secretary Michael Gove has been actively setting out his case for a 'Green Brexit'. Central to his vision is fundamental reform of agriculture policy and payments, and the direction of travel Mr Gove sets out for those reforms is very positive.
As a contribution to this debate, the RSPB, The Wildlife Trusts and National Trust have today published a report that assesses the costs of environmental land management across the UK, completed by independent economic consultant Matt Rayment.
As I have mentioned many times before, agriculture has been and remains one of the biggest drivers of wildlife decline across the UK. Poorly designed public policy has driven agriculture in the wrong direction, with actively damaging subsidies in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s resulting in environmental degradation. Since then, reformed agricultural policy has been insufficient to right these wrongs (as demonstrated by the continued decline in farmland birds reported in last weeks State of UK's Birds report).
The UK vote to leave the European Union means that we shall also leave the European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). This presents an opportunity to do things differently. We have the chance to create a farming and land use policy that help the UK Government's realise its commitment of restoring the natural environment in a generation. All four governments of the UK have their own ambitions for the natural environment – from improving water quality, to increasing extent of key habitats, and managing our finite and fast-eroding soils. Given that 75% of UK land is farmed, success will depend on how we support farmers and other land managers.
Crucially, this will require significant investment. Whilst some of this could and should come from the private sector, the fact that many environmental objectives are ‘public goods’ (i.e. they’re not provided through conventional markets) means that the majority will need to come from the public purse.
The report we publish today provides a figure for how much nature needs: we estimate that the total cost of achieving our environmental ambitions (for example to meet targets for species and habitats) on land are £2.3 billion per year. Compared to existing CAP funded agri-environment scheme spending, this would represent a 450% increase, but compared to overall CAP spending (£3 billion), it’s doable. And more importantly, it will is essential if we are to a future for some of our rapidly declining species such as curlew (profiled in a separate blog here), turtle dove, high brown fritillary, stone curlew, corn marigolds and corncrake.
As I have written previously, farming and land management policies need a thorough overhaul, and the environment should be the overriding focus of any future payments. With powerful voices calling for an end to all farming payments, refocusing future payments toward the clear environmental benefits that farmers and land managers are uniquely placed to provide presents an opportunity for the sector to continue to receive public support.
This report provides evidence for the funding needed to exercise this shift. However, as farming faces the uncertainty of Brexit, there is also a clear need for targeted support to ensure that the sector is able to adapt to the inevitable change that Brexit will bring, and to help drive sustainable innovation and build resilience. In an accompanying briefing for policy makers, we set out why we need to maintain the funding associated with the CAP – in excess of £3 billion per year – for at least a ten year period after our departure from the EU.
We have the opportunity to show the world that we can do something no other country has done, to deliver a thriving farming sector that delivers for nature and people. The UK Government and devolved administrations have this within their gift, and this report shows that it is both realistic, and attainable.
All we need now is the political will.
Please do read the report and let me know what you think.
It would be great to hear your views.
Arable flower image from Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)
In a week of guest blogs, here is a special one from the UK and Ireland Curlew Action Group (who have joined forces to reverse the decline of our curlew population. The RSPB is represented on this group through our Curlew Programme Manager, Sarah Sanders, and I am delighted that both statutory and charitable organisations have come together to have impact for this most evocative of species.
At this time of year, when we continue to dive into the depths of winter, spring can seem very far away.
For hill farmers, however, the evocative call of the Eurasian Curlew provides a reminder that winter is nearly over for another year. Around early March, the Curlew moves inland from our coasts to breed, remaining remarkably faithful to sites where they have bred before. Their preferred nesting sites are rough pasture and moorland, which provides a mix of both open patches to feed and dense bits of vegetation in which to hide their nests.
Curlew in hay meadow - Photo Credit: Gavin Thomas
So why should we be concerned? The Eurasian Curlew is in serious trouble. There are some parts of the UK and Ireland where farmers are no longer hearing their call. The numbers of breeding Curlew across the UK have dropped by 48% since the mid-90s. There are less than 150 pairs remaining in the Republic of Ireland, down from 3,750 – 4,000 pairs in the late 80’s which is a catastrophic decline of 96%. In southern and eastern England, recent surveys have shown there are fewer than 300 pairs remaining. Consequently, Curlew in Ireland and southern and eastern England are thought to be at real risk of imminent extinction, whilst declines in the UK more widely are also of serious concern. A potential disaster, not only for the UK and Ireland, but also the world as we are home to up to 27% of the global breeding population.
What is driving the decline? Curlew are long-lived and should be able to maintain stable numbers if each pair raises one chick every couple of years. Unfortunately, in many areas their breeding success is much lower. The main causes of this lack of production are firstly loss of suitable habitat due to land-use change, such as agricultural practices and forestry. Secondly, predation, including that by foxes and crows, who often thrive in the heavily modified and fragmented landscapes we have shaped over the last few decades.
The challenge to respond is enormous particularly as Curlew are widely dispersed across landscapes. We cannot lose the Curlew so how can we make a difference at this sort of scale?
We have formed a UK and Ireland Curlew Action Group*. It is made up of a growing partnership of government agencies and conservation organisations, who all care about Curlew. We have come together to shape, drive and co-ordinate a programme of work across the UK so that we can make a difference for this species but also meet our international obligations, including the African Eurasian Waterbird Agreement and EU Birds Directive.
Our work includes:
Emergency action in the Republic of Ireland
The Curlew Conservation Programme is led the Agri-Ecology unit in the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS). Their goal is to stop the curlew population sliding further towards extinction by giving birds a better chance of rearing chicks. It involves locally based teams of advisors, champions and nest protection officers, working closely with landowners and other local interests, to protect curlew nesting attempts and to improve habitat quality. There is also a strong research element to the programme and from 2018 onwards, a Post-doctoral researcher will be analysing the effectiveness of actions undertaken.
The annual report of the Curlew Conservation Programme for 2017 is available here.
Filling knowledge gaps so we can better understand the ecology of Curlew
The Curlew is now a very scarce breeding bird in Northern Ireland. It is estimated that only around 500 pairs remain, compared to 5,000 pairs in the 1980s. There are now few areas where Curlews are still relatively common. The best of these is the Glenwherry area in the southern Antrim Hills, where the species is regularly monitored by the RSPB. Glenwherry covers only a very small percentage of the total area of the Antrim Hills, however. This year, Northern Ireland Environment Agency staff joined the RSPB in a survey of Curlews in the remainder of the hills outside the study area. The results were alarming, with fewer than ten pairs being found outside the core area, which held approximately 50 pairs. These results not only emphasise the need to maintain suitable habitat in the areas that still have curlews but also highlight the urgency with which habitat restoration and other conservation measures need to carried out in the parts of the Antrim Hills from which the species has been lost.
The GWCT is a running a number of different studies, exploring how breeding numbers and productivity of Curlew, and other wader species, are influenced by levels of predator control, extent of heather burning and changes in grazing management. Some of this work is testing the predictions of their earlier experimental study at Otterburn, which demonstrated increases in breeding success and breeding numbers of ground-nesting birds, including Curlew, when predator control was undertaken. Current studies are ongoing but results are anticipated after one more season of data collection.
Ensuring important breeding sites for Curlew are appropriately protected and managed
Special Protection Areas under the EU Birds Directive provide protection for the most important sites for UK migratory bird species. Whilst 13 coastal SPAs have been designated for non-breeding curlew, there is no SPA designated for curlews in the breeding season. Although formal recommendations from JNCC and the country conservation agencies were made to government in 2001 to designate a further 12 non-breeding SPAs, and the North Pennines (the single most important site in England) as a SPA in the breeding season, these recommendations have yet to be implemented.
However, Environment Minister Thérèse Coffey recently noted, in a Westminster debate on the plight of the Curlew, both that “it is time for action” and the need for “protecting important sites” – so hopefully action to designate these sites will occur very soon.
Increasing the number of chicks produced
Many of us are working with farmers to ensure farming operations support breeding success, in other words delaying mowing, and encouraging beneficial farming practices such as appropriate livestock grazing regimes. It is going to be important to ensure agri-environment funding continues and agri-environment schemes are improved post Brexit to support farmers to better manage land to benefit Curlew.
The RSPB is conducting a Trial Management Project to test the combination of habitat management and predator control interventions required to stabilise the breeding population of curlew. This will inform the future development of ‘curlew-friendly’ land management practices. More can be read here but it involves working at six sites across the four countries. The study has just completed one year where habitat management and predator control was undertaken at all the six trial management sites. It is too early to draw any conclusions but numbers seem to be broadly stable.
Natural England part-funds the five-year Curlew trial management project under its Action for Birds in England partnership agreement with RSPB. It also commissioned BTO to undertake a national survey of upland in-bye farmland breeding curlew and other waders in 2016 to measure the success of agri-environment schemes in maintaining these species’ habitats and to identify breeding wader hot spots for future conservation effort. New initiatives in the Peak District and Northumberland are underway to deliver habitat management for Curlews and other waders through collaborative action by farmers and other landowners with agri-environment funding.
The needs of this bird are receiving particular attention by Environment Minister Coffey who has said “The Curlew is too important to be lost from our world’s biodiversity.” Hopefully this Ministerial attention will directly lead to supportive conservation programmes that address identified conservation issues.
We simply cannot lose the call of the curlew. There is a lot at stake as we don’t want our Eurasian Curlew to follow the shocking fate of two other species of Curlew, the Eskimo Curlew and the Slender-billed Curlew, both of which could possibly be extinct. We believe, however, that by all working together we can make a difference and improve the conservation prospects for this much-loved bird.
* The UK and Ireland Curlew Action Group brings together the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development Northern Ireland, Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht Ireland, Joint Nature Conservation Committee, Natural England, Natural Resources Wales, Scottish Natural Heritage, BirdWatch Ireland, the British Trust for Ornithology, the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, and the Southern Curlew Forum.