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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.
I’ve written before about how we sometimes have to make difficult decisions when trying to meet our conservation objectives. I’ve also said that undertaking any kind of predator control is always a last resort and always part of a much wider package of action including influencing the policy and legal framework of land management.
In the case of the curlew, there is a lot of work to be done. There has been much focus on the predator control element of our work to save this species but perhaps not enough about everything else, so today I thought I should broaden the picture a bit.
Andy Hay's image of a curlew (rpsb-images.com)
Since the 1990s, the number of breeding curlews in the UK has halved. We know that the decline in curlew across the UK is due to poor breeding success, which is linked to changes in land-use, as well as predation – the levels of which can be affected by how we manage the land.
Curlew are widely dispersed across the UK landscape. If we are to make a difference for them then it will require working together with farmers, land-managers, other conservation organisations and communities at a landscape-scale. And that’s what we’re trying to do.
But we know that’s not enough. We also need all four UK governments to step up and do their bit too – not just for curlew, but for a whole host of flora and fauna too. Here’s what we’re fighting for:
For the most part, environmental policy is devolved, yet of course wildlife doesn’t recognise national borders, therefore interventions to benefit species such as the curlew will require a UK-wide, joined-up approach.
Our current work as part of the Curlew Recovery Programme is essentially to buy the species some time – intervening today while we try to fix the landscape-level drivers of decline - but that time it’s swiftly running out. Reforming the way we manage our land across the UK is the only way we will see the fortunes of this and many other species turn around.
If you, like us, believe that a reform to land management is needed, please email your MP, SMP or AM. You can find help on how to do this here.
For anyone following the tragic story of Gough Island, you’ll know that the island’s unique seabirds are in a dramatic decline and that predation from invasive non-native mice is the primary cause. But until now we haven’t known the true extent of the damage mice are causing. Below, my colleague Laura Beasley reports on new research highlighting the scale of mouse predation on seabirds.
A new study by our colleagues at universities in the UK, the Republic of Ireland and South Africa has been published today measuring the number of seabirds killed by mice on Gough Island every year.
On first look, Gough Island is an idyllic uninhabited UK Overseas Territory in the South Atlantic. The World Heritage Site is home to 22 stunning nesting seabird species: a birders' paradise.
But look closer and you’ll see a heart-breaking story unfold.
Since mice were brought to and populated the island, seabirds have become their prey. With no natural defences against mice, chicks endure horrific attacks for up to three nights in a row before they succumb to their injuries. And it’s no surprise then that numbers of seabirds are plummeting; for example as few as 14% of Tristan albatross chicks are surviving to fledge each year. The situation is only escalating, mice have now been observed scalping the chicks and this year, for the first time on Gough, an adult Tristan albatross was found dead from the wounds of mice attacks.
Sailing up to Gough Island in the South Atlantic – 2,600km from Cape Town (G. Rosin).
Previous estimates of the number of seabirds lost to mouse predation each year have suggested one million. By comparing breeding success of species on Gough to comparable species on a predator-free island this new study shows the true number to be much higher. In fact, we’re losing almost two million of Gough’s seabirds each year because of mice.
The study found that those species whose chicks fledge latest in the winter, when there is less food available on Gough, are the worst affected by mice. That includes small burrowing petrels such as the Atlantic petrel, the recently discovered McGillivray’s prion, and winter-breeding birds such as the iconic Tristan albatross. Many more species could not be quantified in this study due to their now scarcity on Gough, strongly suggesting the number of birds lost to mice could easily exceed three million annually.
But we have a plan to stop this through The Gough Island Restoration Programme. In one of our most ambitious projects to date we’ll eradicate the mice, save species from extinction and restore Gough to the seabird haven it once was. The shocking results of this latest study are a reminder of why we’ve taken on this challenge, and the scale of impact it could have.
The value of island restoration projects is becoming better understood all the time, with recent successes on the Antipodes Island and South Georgia making headlines. The return on investment in these projects cannot be underestimated.
With our partners the Tristan da Cunha Government, the Department for Environmental Affairs, BirdLife South Africa and Island Conservation, we established the Gough Island Restoration Programme in 2015. The team are feeling shocked at these figures, but it’s mixed with the heightened sense of the projects’ conservation value and the responsibility on our shoulders.
We now know that after years of planning this three-month operation could save two million seabirds each year and prevent the extinction of a number of species.
This project is bold, ambitious and, if successful, will save the Critically Endangered native Tristan albatross from extinction; having a major global conservation impact. It is safe to say that The Gough Island Restoration Programme encapsulates what the RSPB is all about.
The heart-wrenching moment a MacGillivray’s prion returned to its nest to find its chick dead – eaten alive by invasive non-native mice (Jaimie Cleeland).
This is one of the largest projects the RSPB has ever undertaken, and we need your support to make it a success and put an end to this horror.
You can donate directly to the project, and help save Critically Endangered species from extinction.
And if you have five minutes today, please read this powerful blog from one our 2017/18 Field Assistants. It may be hard to face the reality of this environmental catastrophe, but there is a solution that you can help us to realise.
Thank you for your support.
To find out more visit:
The endemic and Critically Endangered Tristan albatross population has declined by 96% in three generations (Jaimie Cleeland).
The study was carried out by staff at University College Cork, Ireland; Queen’s University Belfast, UK; The RSPB, UK; Conservation Solutions, UK; University of Cape Town, South Africa; Stellenbosch University, South Africa; and The Natural History Museum, UK.
The Gough Island Restoration Programme is being carried out by the RSPB in partnership with Tristan da Cunha, BirdLife South Africa, the Department of Environmental Affairs in South Africa, Island Conservation, BirdLife International, the Percy Fitzpatrick Institute, the Zoological Society of London, the World Land Trust, the Royal Zoological Society of London, the Durrell Institute and the Rothschild Foundation.
The programme is part-funded by the RSPB, the UK government, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, The David and Lucile Packard Foundation, John Ellerman Foundation, Ludwick Family Foundation, Jephcott Charitable Trust and other generous individuals and organisations.
The RSPB AGM was an uplifting end to a tough week.
Tragically, two brilliant colleagues – John Lanchbery and Roy Taylor - passed away this week. In very different ways, they personified the best of the RSPB.
John dedicated his career to securing global action to tackle climate change particularly through reducing greenhouse gas emissions from the loss of tropical forests which was a core part of the landmark Paris Agreement. Roy focused on shaping policy to drive practical conservation (for example through SCAMP) and there are large swathes of northern England that have been transformed thanks to his vision, dedication and boundless enthusiasm.
These two heroes of conservation died in the week after the publication of the IPCC report –the latest wake up call and reminder that the scale of the political response is miles away from what needs to happen to avoid global temperature rise of 1.5 degrees Centigrade above greenhouse gas emissions.
Roy on the left, John on the right (images courtesy of David Morris and Olly Watts)
Our job is to ensure that their legacy continues both by nurturing what they achieved but also by using the knowledge and inspiration that they passed on to us. That means we shall support calls for the UK Government to set a new target of net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. We shall continue to argue for a revolution in the way we use and generate energy in harmony with nature. We shall make the case for greater investment in protecting natural habitats at home and internationally (such as forests and peatlands) to protect both the climate and biodiversity. And, we shall explore how best to reduce the carbon footprint of what we eat including, as I promised in response to a question from the AGM floor today, whether to promote meat-free Mondays (or more) through our own catering operation.
I was sorry that John and Roy were not at our AGM yesterday to see another hero, Caroline Lucas MP, receive the RSPB Medal for her immense contribution to environmental causes and to hear her impassioned speech calling for greater action to save nature.
I was sorry that they were not there to see such dedicated volunteers receive their President’s award for the work they contribute to our charity.
I was sorry that they did not hear a member of our Phoenix Forum, Will Walsh, remind our membership of the passion and drive of teenagers giving confidence that the next generation are up for the challenge of dealing with whatever mess we pass on to them.
And, I was sorry that they did not hear fantastic talks from my colleagues about our work to save threatened species such as curlew, seabirds and Asian vultures, restoring special places like Franchises Lodge in the New Forest and inspiring more people to support our work.
Clockwise from top left: Sarah Sanders talking curlews, Richard and Lynn Ebbs receiving their President's Award from Miranda Krestovnikoff, Caroline Lucas MP accepting her RSPB Medal and Clare Stringer providing an update on our vulture programme
But, the AGM was uplifting.
It offered cause for realistic optimism that we have people prepared to dedicate their lives – like John and Roy - to tackling the twin crises of climate change and loss of biodiversity.
After the AGM, I headed north with the family for half term. My first stop is to part of Roy Taylor's England - RSPB St Aidan’s where I am running a half-marathon connecting another of our nature reserves Fairburn Ings.
I hope you have a great week.